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[471] Moloka’i – Alan Brennert

” 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/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Which Novel to Live In

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Booking Through Thursday asks if I have a pet named after my readings. The quick answer is no. My dog is actually named after George Michael because I fell in love with George Michael after Careless Whisper. However, I have been mulling over last week’s question: If you had to choose to live within a novel, which would it be?

Many places have captured my fantasies and fueled my desire for travel. The Jia’s mansion in The Dream of the Red Chamber, with the quiet courtyards and lush landscaped garden. Manderley in Rebecca but minus the ghost. Recently The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings roused nostalgic memories of Hawaii, a place I always long to reside and hopefully I can retire in. Alan Brennert’s Moloka’i, which draws on historical accounts of Kalaupapa and weaves in traditional Hawaiian stories and customs, is the story of people who had much taken from them but also gained an unexpected new family and community in the process. During my last visit to the island of Kaua’i, I took a sidetrip to Moloka’i and visited the historical leper colony. I survived the mule ride and made it down into Kalaupapa Valley, looking out to the ocean could be one of the most beautiful places I have seen.

Kalaupapa Valley is the home to Kalaupapa Leper Settlement and the story is haunting. In 1865, people on the Hawaiian islands were alarmed by the outbreak of leprosy (Hansen’s Disease) and decided to separate and isolate patients to keep it under control. Rachel Kalama, a 7-year-girl, has a pink blemish on her skin and is sent to this settlement for isolation in the novel.

That is a mild way of putting it, they were in essence banished and exiled, dropped off on ships with only as much as they could carry. There was no way out of this valley. No roads. No boats. Nothing but steep mountains that the sick could not climb. The government mistakenly thought that because they were Hawaiians they would be able to fend for themselves but because they were sick many could not and the last few years of their lives were miserable.

For years, residents of Molokaʻi have resisted attempts to dramatically increase tourism. Today Kalaupapa is also a state park. There are 30 people here from the Department of Health and 50 that work with the park. You can only stay here if you work here (no spouses) or a patient. You need to get permission to visit but there can be no more than 100 outsiders a day. No children under 16. Moloka’i is rather quiet, sequestered, and primitive. If I ever get bored here, I can always live in Kaua’i, which, to me, is the paradise on earth. I have spent many a night resting, reading, and admiring the view of the Bali-hai in my vacation condo at Hanalei Bay Resort.

I’ve always stayed here since my first time in Kauai. I never get tired of this view and I can sit in the patio all day with my book and munching on a meal or sipping a glass of wine. The view constantly changes as shreds of clouds and fog linger over the mountains.


“The first place she went to was Hawaii. She lived on Kauai for two years. She had read somewhere that Kauai’s north shore had an area with springs that produced marvelous water. Already, back then, my sister had a profound interest in water. She believed that human existence was largely controlled by the elements of water. Which is why she went to live on Kauai.” The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, p. 88

Coincidence is truly a beautiful thing, especially when literary reality merges with true-to-life experiences. Kauai is my favorite place on earth. The beautiful, peaceful island is not sought out by most family vacationers and night-life fanatics. Visitors who do go to Kauai stay mostly on south shore, where the weather is drier and sunnier than the drizzly, cooler north shore.(Kauai has 33 micro-climates). To me the north shore is a refuge where spiritual peace prevails and material desires cease to exist. What gadget and means of communication on which urban life depends suddenly become irrelevant in Kauai. There is no need to look at the watch unless I have a dinner reservation. I’m not aware of spiritual water here, but the coast is flanked by beautiful but very discreet beaches, due to the fact that they are not clearly marked. (It’s actually not a bad thing for regulars like me). A beach looms at every turn of the road after Hanalei Bay. Some are more rocky than others. By far my favorite are Ke’e and Haena beaches. Ke’e is famous for is a large shallow reef that provides a relatively protected swimming area and a great opportunity for snorkeling. Haena is a large crescent of white sand beach with some trees along the fringe and a grassy camping area. Haena is a very pretty north shore beach and the scenery is dramatic with lush green mountains rising high out of the ground immediately to the south. I spend hours on end wading the water and reading at these beaches. I cannot wait to be back to Kauai this winter.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle reminds me of many themes Haruki Murakami has touched upon in After Dark: loneliness, isolation, relationship, prostitution, and metaphysical power. Specifically two characters in both novels are sisters. Murakami seems to have a penchant for exploring sororal relationship. Also present are prostitution and sexual desire. As befit to the size of Wind-Up Bird, the novel has an underlying historical scheme pertaining to the Second Sino-Japanese War. What I don’t expect is how some supernatural forces are at the center of three novels on a roll that I have read.

E pili mau na pomaika`i ia `oe

Here I don’t have to keep watch of time, nor do I have to answer the phone. Most coffee shops and restaurants in fact ask you to refrain from talking on the phone. If time seems to freeze, why is it that the vacation slips by without my knowing? Maybe this is what paradise is all about, ephemeral but unforgettable. E pili mau na pomaika`i ia `oe. May blessings ever be with you. So I was wished by the kind and warm Hawaiians at the local church service. I certainly left my heart in Hawaii. Click on the picture and you’ll be paradise bound!

Hawaiian-Bound Inflight Reading Notes

pianoteacherI finished The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee all in one sitting during the flight to Hawaii today. Seldom have I been so captivated, so exhaustively absorbed by a novel, let alone a debut. The narrative alternates between decades. It is 1952 when the recently married Claire Pendleton arrives in Hong Kong. Her husband, Martin, is an engineer who is to oversee the building of a reservoir. I have the impression that she married him out of convenience. She finds Hong Kong quite to her liking. Eventually Claire takes up work as a piano teacher for the daughter of a wealthy Chinese family, where she meets Will Truesdale, the Chens’ enigmatic chauffeur. The book jumps back in time between the 1950s and the beginning of WWII, when Will is interned in Stanley, a Hong Kong camp for enemies of Japan. The premise is very similar to W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil, and the dialogues very intriguing. Stay tuned for my full interview.

hawaiianlitI finished the last pages of Of Human Bondage at the gate over a cup of Peet’s coffee. Boarding was a breeze as there weren’t many passengers. My cabin was sparse and quiet, just perfect for reading in a morning flight. I also read through a portion of A Hawaiian Reader (volume 1) that features selections from the works of Somerset Maugham, James Jones, Mark Twain, and Robert Louis Stevenson. I picked up this anthology from my last trip to Kauai. Many of the slected pieces capture early voyagers’ impressions of the untouched paradise they had discovered. This is a book for everyone who has been to hawaii and who is going there. I hope I can find volume 2 of this reader.

Do you read on the plane? What do you read?

Kaua’i Part 2 – Take It Easy

Clockwise from top left: Guava Plantation in Kilauea, exotic flower in Allerton Gardens, United Church of Christ in Hanalei, King Kong Profile and Hole in a Mountain near Kapa’a

Owner of the vacation condo is very thoughtful to leave a journal for guests to leave their words and thoughts. As I’m flipping through the past entries written by honeymooners and family vacationers, I noted a modest consistency in recommendations for activities and attractions. Ken proudly and jocularly proclaims those activities being so Haole, meaning “originally foreigner”, but now generally a synonym to Caucasian. “Hello, aren’t you one big Haole yourself?” I snap, risking to be smacked.

I surely know what he means. On his rough sketch of our island agenda, he has by all means done away any tour activities and traps. While he scratches out the captain tour, the surf lessons, and a less than authentic, mainlander-catering luau, he does make plan for a helicopter ride over the spectacular Na Poli Coast to the northwest of the island. But owing to my fear of height we have to abort that once-in-a-lifetime flight.

We are actually very laid-back with time. Usually we cook breakfast and read for about an hour over coffee. Then we leave Princeville and drive around, pulling into backroad and explore the beautiful landscape. To show he’s not a Haole Ken would stay away from restaurants serving American cuisine! So Bubba’s Burgers (never greasy, always juicy) and Kountry Kitchen and the Fishermen’s Wharf-like shops are out of the question.

Instead we make quick stops at Guava Plantation on the way to the Kilauea Lighthouse, walk around the bluff that is the northernmost point of the main Hawaiian Islands, view birds that are coming to nest at the refuge, and pay visit to charming little green chapel in Hanalei. The King Kong Profile near Kapa’a is most overlooked by tourists partly due to a lack of a lookout spot. The Allerton Gardens that sits quietly in the south among all the most popular resorts is a garden paradise, transformed through time by the hands of a Hawaiian Queen, by a sugar plantation magnate, and most significantly by an artist and an architect. The guided tour is a lesson of Hawaiian history, as we stroll through garden rooms that unfold between the stream and valley. Tropical fruit trees and exotic flowers intermingle with the ever changing landscape that is graced by statue. Murmuring of pools and mini waterfalls sounds like nature’s music score.

We find Borders Books and Music in Lihue to be a great resource to learn more about history and culture of the island, as huge section is devoted to books treating the subject matter. Ken finds CDs on traditional Hawaiian songs and folk music, as I get lost in the section on Hawaiian literature. It is here that I reads from W. Somerset Maugham’s travelogue:

“Nothing had prepared me for Honolulu. It is so far away from Europe, it is reached after so long a journey from San Francisco, so strange and so charming associations are attached to the name, that at first I could hardly believe my eyes. I do not know that I had formed in my mind any very exact picture of what I expected, but what I found caused me a great surprise.”

Kaua’i Part 1 – Embrace Paradise

All pictures taken from the balcony of the condo. Unit 5207, Hanalei Bay Resort, Princeville, Kaua’i.

As in the aftermath of my past trips, I can’t help feeling emptied out coming back from Kaua’i, especially coming back to this rain in the city. I felt like it was my mere flesh that occupied the crammed seat of the plane and my soul was left on paradise. No alien land in all the world yet (although I’ve enjoyed Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Bali, and Japan) has any deep strong for charm but Kaua’i, no other land have so longingly, and so beseechingly haunted me.

The tranquil mountain ranges, the streaks of white ribbons that traverse down the ridges, the mist that froths on the mountain top, the blowing balmy airs–so abiding and enchanting. Other things leave me and change, but all the nature’s delights of Kaua’i remain the same. Every morning I wake up to the soft chirping of the birds, and the crowing of roosters that seem to have no sense of time. Shrouded in the woodland solitudes, I burrow in paradise where time is frozen and motion halted, except for the remote summits floating like islands above the cloud rack.

It’s under this sequestered peace Ken and I spend our time reading on the lanai (balcony) of the vacation condo: golf and ancient history for him, literature and Hawai’ian folklore for me. At Borders and some general stores, I’ve found a series of trade paperbacks called Tales of the Pacific devoting to Hawai’ian literary interests. They are, to my surprise, printed and imported from Australia. I pick up a copy of each title available:

Ancient History of the Hawai’ian People to the Times of Kamehameha I
A Hawai’ian Reader I
edited by A. Grove Day and Carl Stroven
A Hawai’ian Reader II edited by A. Grove Day and Carl Stroven
Myths and Legends of Hawai’i by W.D. Westervelt
The Trembling of a Leaf by W. Somerset Maugham
Horror in Paradise edited by A. Grove Day and Bacil F. Kirtley

Slouching on a hammock at the beach I finished The Page Turner by David Leavitt. Then I started my #4 book for the Outmoded Author Challenge, Shadow of a Man by May Sarton, which opens with the death of a respectful woman who had entered many lives and her passing had stirred up in her relations pondering of life’s meaning. I also flipped through the first of the two volumes of A Hawai’ian Reader, which in apropos contains pieces written by May Sarton and W. Somerset Maugham. What a beautiful coincidence that I cross path with their travel and writing of Hawai’i.

to be continued…

Getaway to Kauai, Hawaii

Clockwise from top left: Landing in Lihue, Kauai island, Hanalei Bay Resort, Hanalei Bay, Hanalei Bay Resort cafe

I’m already in Lihue, Kauai Island when you read this post. This is a bonus getaway since United kindly rewards me a free ticket to Hawaii from the redeemable segment miles. All I pay for out of my pocket is the beautiful vacation rental at Hanalei Bay Resort on the north shore of Kauai Island and travel expenses.

Known also as the “Garden Isle”, Kauaʻi lies 105 miles across the Kauaʻi Channel, northwest of Oʻahu. Of volcanic origin, the highest peak on this mountainous island is Kawaikini at 5,243 ft. One of the wettest spots on Earth, with an annual average rainfall of 460 inches, is located on the east side of Mount Waiʻaleʻale. The high annual rainfall has eroded deep valleys in the central mountains, carving out canyons with many scenic waterfalls. It’s the quietness, seclusion, and lushness that attract me to Kauai–perfect for a getaway with lots of beach walk, hiking, swimming, and reading.

I’m bringing with me three books to read:

The Page Turner by David Leavitt
Shadow of a Man by May Sarton (Outmoded Author Challenge #4)
Woman Who Waited by Andrei Makine

Yes, I have thoroughly enjoyed the absorbing The Small Room by May Sarton, which I didn’t want to end but have finished over coffee this morning. I carve for more of her work and decide to bring along yet another book, which will be #4 for the Outmoded Author book. The review of The Small Room has been programmed and will be posted while I’m gone. Stay tuned! I’ll have to response to your comments when I get back.