Moloka’i is both beautiful and bittersweet. Alan Brennert shows us the human side of institutional health care. In the late 19th century, Hawaii was still a sovereign country. But the haole (non-Hawaiians) were making their way there. And bringing their diseases, most of which the native population hadn’t experienced. Since they had no natural immunities, a disproportionate number of Hawaiians got leprosy.

Leprosy is a bacterial infection, now more properly called Hansen’s disease. It didn’t become curable (and virtually eradicated) until the mid-20th century when antibiotics were more commonplace. Since it’s contagious, the early solution was to quarantine “lepers.” In Hawaii the quarantine was located on the small island of Moloka’i.

But this isn’t a nonfiction history of the disease. It’s the story of a little girl named Rachel, who is sent to Moloka’i at age six. She’s raised by the nuns in a residential school. Her favorite uncle and his paramour live nearby, and also make a big impression on Rachel.

Brennert follows Rachel through her life, which in many ways is just like a healthy young woman’s. She rebels, has girlfriends, learns to find her own way, and even has boyfriends. Along the way, she learns more about Hawaiian native culture, which her Christian mother chose not to teach her. Bring your tissue box along, because you may cry happy and sad tears. But also be prepared to learn a lot.

My conclusions

At first, I had trouble settling into this book. I’ve said a million times that I don’t love coming-of-age stories. But this is so much more, and I couldn’t help but love little Rachel. Brennert takes her through so many decades that it’s also historical fiction.

As a woman living with chronic illness, I related to many parts of Rachel’s life. Just when she thought things were going pretty well, the disease would rear its ugly head. And as the decades passed, she wondered what life would have been like without her disease. But she persisted and made a rewarding life for herself. I love that part of this story.

Moloka’i is a well-told novel, both beautiful and heart wrenching. I highly recommend it. It’s also worth picking up soon, because the second book in the series will be published this month. I have the advanced reader’s copy of that book, so look for another Brennert review soon.

Related book

Moloka’i also reminds me of a nonfiction book I read two years ago, called The Leper Spy: The Story of an Unlikely Hero of World War II. That’s a book about another young woman who lived with leprosy in the Philippines. She used the revulsion people felt about her disease to slip behind enemy lines and help the Allies. And she spends time in the mainland leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana.

About the image

In between all the life and disease history, Brennert shows his readers just how unique and beautiful the Hawaiian islands are. We traveled to Kauai in 2014 and have plans to go back to another island sometime. I’ve used a few pictures from our trip that remind me of this book in the image above.