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[523] The Descendants – Kaui Hart Hemmings

” I could tell Scott that money isn’t going to make my life better; his daughter’s death is going to make my life easier. Deep within me, I know this. I don’t want to be in this situation, I don’t wish this upon her, but now that it has happened, now that I know what’s going to happen, I am confident my girls will make it out and will become strong, interesting people and I will be a good father and we will have a better life than the one we thought we were destined to have. ” (Ch.40, p.259)

People are not exempt from tragedies even in paradise because it is life. Matt King, a wealthy Honolulu attorney, has had a grave shock: his wife, Joanie, has been severely injured in a boat-racing accident and now lies in the hospital, comatose. In the painful depths of this domestic crisis, King, who “haven’t been the most available parent, and been in a state of prolonged unconsciousness,” (16) tries to repair his relationship with his two daughters. But taking Joanie off life support, as doctor suggests, will yet to bring closure. In the course of the narrative, King realizes, in his obliviousness, his wife has drifted away from him and has an affair with another man. Both of his daughters, one precocious and vaguely horrifying and another a recovering drug addict, have been mired in anger and rebellion. While he struggles through bereavement, he has to steer them clear of anger as well. They are the typical children who are ruined by privilege and consigned to aimlessness.

I don’t want to tell her that I’m furious and humiliated and ashamed of my anger toward Joanie. How do I forgive my wife for loving someone else? I think of Brian. I never considered how he must be dealing with this. He can’t see her. He can’t talk to her. He can’t grieve, really. I wonder if Joanie misses him from her coma, if she wishes he could be with her instead of us. (Ch.21, p.132)

As King gathers his wife’s friends and family to say their final goodbyes, he has to grapple with the revelation—to confront Joanie’s lover, a married man who plays a role in lobbying offer for land owned by King’s aristocratic mixed-race (haole) Hawaiian family. The Descendants does not read like a story wallowed in misery. True there is an impending death and an affair, but Kaui Hart Hemmings is a determinedly unsentimental writer. She manages her hazardous subject matter in a dry, detached, and understated way, which I both admire and thank for. The confrontation scene is quickly dispatched.

She seems okay with my disapproval. She’s gotten her story, after all, and she’s beginning to see how much easier physical pain is to tolerate than emotional pain. I’m unhappy that she’s learning this at such a young age. (Ch.10, 71)

King’s narrative voice is plausible and persuasive, in his pared-down lyricism as much as his comic bemusement, which derives from his desperate attempts to rein in his daughters and their disdainful responses to his careful ministrations. The Descendants is a beautifully written book about love and healing, about a middle-aged man, a father’s awakening to responsibility and to love, because, as he ruefully notes, he is not comfortable to showing affection.

283 pp. Random House. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[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.

E pili mau na pomaika`i ia `oe

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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!

Getaway to Kauai, Hawaii

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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.