” Henry and Dorothy touched their daughter the only way they could, through the wire barrier. They wept with her and told her they loved her, that they would always love her; and that someday, maybe, somebody would find a cure for the ma’ipake and she could come home again. Rachel’s face was pressed against the screen and Henry managed to get the tip of one thick finger through, to stroke her back. ” (Ch.4, p.54)
Blending historical facts and fiction, and weaving real-life patients and caregivers with his fictional cast of characters, Alan Breenert creates a story of epic scale on the account of how an incurable disease robs the victims of their life and breaks family ties, during the time when American troops had been wrongfully deployed on Hawaiian soil, forcing Queen Liliu’okalani to depose. Moloka’i is a generous and candid portrait of a brave, full life—Rachel Kalama’s disease, tearing her away from her family in Honolulu, banishing her to the leprosy settlement in Kalaupapa, Moloka’i, draws her into healing friendships with Haleola, who followed her husband to exile, and with troubled Sister Catherine. As the insidious disease takes its circuitous course, so stealthily and capriciously, Rachel’s suffering is more an emotional than a physical one.
I’ve come to believe that how we choose to live with pain, or injustice, or death . . . is the true measure of the Divine within us. Some, like Crossen, choose to do harm to themselves and others. Others, like Kenji, bear up under their pain and help others to bear it . . . Because it is in our own mortality that we are most Divine. (Ch.20, p.307)
It’s in this divine spirit that Rachel lives on, submitting to any treatment uncomplainingly, because she believes she would get well and return to her family. The theme of ohana, family, permeates the entire novel, standing the test of time, of affliction, and of death. The disease is a stigma by which a human being is permanently labeled. Other than the physical manifestation, it constantly imposes obstacles that thwart one from living life to the full. In Kenji she has found true love and happiness, but in his family, who believes that leprosy disgraces the entire lineage for good, she realizes the full tragedy of being ostracized—by your own blood. The birth of their daughter gives them as much grief as joy, because it’s only a matter of time that the baby would contract the disease. Rachel wonders every waking moment whether it’s fair to bring a child into the world only to see it immediately orphaned. With much pain they decide to give up the child for adoption.
As Kenji’s casket descended into the grave the awful finality of it engulfed Rachel like a wave, and with an intensity of pain far exceeding any she had ever felt from leprosy. She wanted to jump into the open grave, to let the earth swallowing Kenji swallow her as well; she already felt dead in everything but name. What remained to be taken from her? She longed to be enfolded, welcomed, into the earth—to breathe no more, love no more, hurt no more. (Ch.20, p.305)
Told over six decades, Moloka’i tells the gripping story of adversity and the triumph of the human spirit. The suffering is unimaginable but the story–Rachel’s journey, driven by hope of kinship–is uplifting. In nearly every character one sees valor among the suffering, hope among the forlorn, and optimism among the grim. Brennert also brings the 20th century Hawaii alive with historical perspective on the Hawaiian’s disdain of the American appropriation on the islands, rubbing the natives their country. In the background also are Pearl Harbor, oppression of Japanese Americans into internment camp, and settlement that bequeathed undue prejudice as ugly and unwarranted as that of the lepers.
389 pp. St. Martin Griffin Paperback. [Read/
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