by Alan Brennert
Genre: Historical Fiction
Length: 405 Pages
Release date: October 21, 2003
This richly imagined novel, set in Hawai’i more than a century ago, is an extraordinary epic of a little-known time and place—and a deeply moving testament to the resiliency of the human spirit.
Rachel Kalama, a spirited seven-year-old Hawaiian girl, dreams of visiting far-off lands like her father, a merchant seaman. Then one day a rose-colored mark appears on her skin, and those dreams are stolen from her. Taken from her home and family, Rachel is sent to Kalaupapa, the quarantined leprosy settlement on the island of Moloka’i. Here her life is supposed to end—but instead she discovers it is only just beginning.
“Fear is good. In the right degree it prevents us from making fools of ourselves. But in the wrong measure it prevents us from fully living. Fear is our boon companion but never our master.”
I was very late to the party when it comes to this novel. I had heard of it and was only vaguely aware of what it was about until recently, when I received an ARC of the sequel from the publisher, prompting me to pick it up in order to better understand the continuation.
Moloka’i follows the life story of Rachel, a young Hawaiian girl who contracts leprosy in the 1890’s and so is forcibly taken away from her family to live in a settlement with others with the disease. This somewhat drastic means of stopping the spread of the infection is, of course, taken from actual historical events, and Rachel’s life is a reflection of the very real suffering that many Hawaiians endured. Rachel is only 7 when she is ripped away from her family and lives in a girls’ home on her new island until she is of age.
Often we would think of a moment like this is the beginning of the end of a life, but Brennert challenges us to think differently about what can constitute a fulfilling life. Without ever diminishing the severity of what Rachel endures, Brennert creates a portrait of a woman who has carved out a life the best way she is able. She grows up, has hobbies and passions, develops intimate friendships, and falls in love.
Moloka’i is a richly imagined life story about overcoming hardship and the importance of found family. Rachel provides an interesting perspective as a character who was essentially removed from society at large and experiences sweeping historical changes from the sidelines. This novel is an excellent choice for fans of novels such as Pachinko and other historical fiction.
Thank you for reading! Have you read Moloka’i? Please share your thoughts in the comments!