Book Review: Moloka’i by Alan Brennert


Rating: 5 / 5

Rachel Kalama is a feisty seven-year-old in Hawaii.  Although her parents are not wealthy and her father is gone most of the year working as a shipping merchant, the Kalama family is close-knit and happy.  Rachel’s world comes crashing down one day when it is discovered she has leprosy.  Though just a child, she is forced to leave her family and live in Kalaupapa, the quarantined leprosy settlement on the island of Moloka’i.  Kalaupapa is known as the place where people with leprosy go to die, but instead Rachel carves out a new life for herself, all the while hoping to be allowed to leave Kalaupapa permanently one day.

Moloka’i is simply a beautifully written.  Based on a dark period in history, Brennert brings to life the struggle and sacrifice that many people faced, not only for those who were quarantined, but for the families that were left behind.  in the late 1800s, leprosy was thought to be a disease that affected immoral people, and as Hawaiians did not have a immune system strong enough to cope with leprosy, those with early symptoms or signs of leprosy were medically quarantined on Moloka’i, most for the rest of their lives.  While the person infected was banished, the family remaining suffered from constant scrutiny and the stigma of being a relative;  it was not uncomon for families to move and begin life anew.

Rachel is an endearing and genuine character.  Moloka’i is the story of her life, from seven-years-old onward.  The reader is with Rachel on her journey through her teenage years and well into adulthood.  While Rachel comes to accept her life, and even embrace it, not a day goes by that she doesn’t think about her parents and siblings, all precluded from visiting her, as well as the life she could have lived if she were not infected.  Making the best of her life on Moloka’i, Rachel is nonetheless acutely aware of how precarious life is, seeing many people she has grown to love and depend on succumb to the disease.

Moloka’i is not only an interesting story, but an eye-opening one as well.  It was difficult to read about how the medically ill were treated, and the consequences of ignorance and stigmas.  Rachel’s spirit and generosity are inspiring, and even in the bleakest of situations, she has the ability to make the most of her life and those around her.   Moloka’i is not a new book, but it is a definite must-read book.

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