Tuesday, July 7, 2009


"Treating someone like a leper" has become a common metaphor for social isolation. In Alan Brennert's historical novel Molo'kai, readers have a chance to explore the real-life roots of that phrase.

In the late 1800s, leprosy (known today as Hansen's Disease and treatable with a simple course of antibiotics) tore through the populace of Hawaii. Hawaii's geographic isolation makes it unique but fragile. Leprosy was spreading like wildfire, and the government's best solution was isolation. Leprosy victims were arrested like criminals, taken to a medical facility where their disease stood trial, and if convicted, were sent to remote Molo'kai to live out the rest of their lives among others who had leprosy.

This is the fate of young Rachel Kalama, the central character in the novel. Rachel is diagnosed with leprosy at the young age of seven. Her family tried to hide the evidence of her disease, even making her wear shoes to school (which earned her the nickname, "Little Miss Shoe"). But to no avail, as she is taken anyway, first to a glorified infirmiry, and then to the community of Kalaupapa.

When Rachel arrives in Kalaupapa, it has entered into its maturity. In its earliest days, it was poorly planned and disorganized, with leprosy sufferers themselves forced to provide their own food and shelter to the best of their abilities. But now, Father Damien has come and gone, and Kalaupapa has real houses, a hospital, a store, and two children's homes (one for boys, one for girls). Despite the presence of her uncle on the island, Rachel is settled into the girls' home, run by nuns.

What would you do in these circumstances? Probably what anyone would do: rail against them at first. Mourn the loss of your family and home. Make repeated attempts at escape. But ultimately, you'd settle in. You may not ever fully accept your circumstances, but you'd construct a life nonetheless. This is, of course, what Rachel proceeds to do over the course of the novel, which follows her entire life. Along the way, we meet the people of her life: Sister Catherine, the troubled nun; Haleola, Rachel's uncle's girlfriend and an herbalist and believer in native religion; Rachel's father Henry, the only member of her family to keep in touch; Rachel's husband Kenji, who was studying economics when he fell ill; and many more.

The novel does an excellent job of showing the effects of the leprosy policy on ordinary people. It does a less thorough job of making you feel them quite the way that Snow Falling on Cedars did. The novel lays all of Rachel's life bare for the reader, from her earliest years until her death. But somehow, it doesn't quite take us inside. After spending 350 pages with her, she's still hard to characterize. She likes to surf. She dreams of seeing the world. She cares a great deal about the people around her. That's any bright, empathetic Hawaaian, though. Some of the secondary characters, like Sister Catherine and Rachel's friend Leilani, are slightly more vivid. But Rachel just seems like a glass through which to view Molo'kai and the leprosy policy in general.

It's not a bad book, all in all. Brennert has clearly done his research and is able to make the place and time come alive, if not exactly the central character. I understand there's another book on Hawaii by the same author, which I may or may not check out based on this one. I'd say that for me, this is another one which falls into the "just OK" category.

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