Monday, August 1, 2011

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: Moloka'i by Alan Brennert

I just finished reading a lovely historical novel that’s a bit different from my usual fare. I discovered it thanks to Donovan’s blog Where Pen Meets Paper. You can check out the review there too, if you like. The book is Moloka’i by Alan Brennert.

This is the story of the Hawaiian leper colony founded in the nineteenth century on the island of Moloka’i. The story is seen primarily through the eyes of Rachel Kalama. Rachel was just seven years old, a happy, healthy, playful child, when she was first diagnosed with leprosy. It was 1892. The disease was poorly understood and there was no cure. Victims were feared and shunned. In order to prevent spread, they were isolated from the rest of society and shipped off to Moloka’i. This was even true of children.

Rachel was fortunate in one respect; she had a beloved uncle who had previously been banished to the island. Her uncle had a warm, loving girlfriend who became a second mother to Rachel. This woman, Haleola, was a native healer who eventually taught Rachel about Hawaii’s culture and legends (enriching the novel as well!) However, when Rachel first arrived, she could not stay with her uncle because children had to live in The Bishop’s Home to be supervised by nuns. Luckily, she was allowed visits. Having that much family made the island a little bit more like a home. Living with the other girls turned out to be a blessing in disguise. She was able to grow up within a community, developed a support system, and had fun. She also found a lifelong friend in one of the nuns, Sister Catherine.

Rachel has a mild form of the disease. She watches many of her friends die over the years, but there are some longtime survivors. Over the course of the book, the world changes too. From the vantage point of this strange island cocoon, Rachel experiences the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the dawning of the electrical age, the advent of motion pictures, and much more. The leper colony is a microcosm. It’s interesting to follow Rachel as she grows to womanhood in the strange artificial environment, cut-off from the outside world. At the same time, the people of Moloka’i don’t just sit around waiting for word from outside. They have their own social and economic structures. They’ve created their own world. You never lose sight of the fact that they are exiles, forbidden contact with non-lepers, but their ability to make something of their lives within the context of that exile is a testament to their resilience.

This book has all the things I like in historical fiction. It has well-crafted characters, a fascinating setting, and it was clearly well researched and taught me new things. You might think the topic would be depressing, or possibly enraging, but it wasn’t. There were some bad guys, but overall, it was an encouraging story.

However, I did find it somewhat unevenly paced. There was a lot of life-and-times to cover. Sometimes the storyline lingered over episodes and at other times it jumped over large blocks of time and plopped us down again without much warning. Toward the end, we seemed to be hop-skipping from episode to episode just to get us through the rest of Rachel’s life, but that was OK with me because I was starting to count pages to see if I was almost done yet. I also had a bit of trouble settling in with the Hawaiian dialect at first. But these minor quibbles did nothing to detract from the novel overall.

For an inspiring and informative story about Hawaii’s attempts to deal with leprosy as the kingdom/state emerges into the twentieth century, read Moloka’i.

I've almost finished my historical fiction challenge goal, but I knew this would be the easy one for me. I've got to get working on my other challenges!


  1. Nice review. I really like historical fiction, so I might give this one a try. I've not heard of it before. Thanks!

  2. Lovely review -- I've seen one other review of it that was mostly positive. It's an unusual era for me so I'm quite curious -- plus, I love those armchair escapes!

  3. Thanks for the review! I'm glad I inspired you to read it!

  4. Nice review. I, too, learnt a lot from the book - especially concerning the role of official governmental policy/treatment of lepers in Hawaii at the time. It might be fun to apply the review rating system at Book Blogging Bliss ( to your read on Moloka'i...

  5. Hi Susan,

    What a good review! Hugh Gilmore is a friend of mine who writes a weekly column about reading. (Yes, a column about reading. Can you imagine?)
    I turned him on to your blog, so keep a google alert out.