Wednesday, June 28, 2017

MOLOKA'I by Alan Brennert

It’s the late 1800s, and leprosy is indeed a curse, with a devasting effect on many Hawaiians.   When a 5-year-old girl named Rachel contracts the disease, she is first isolated in a Honolulu hospital but later dispatched to a leper colony on the island of Moloka’i.  Although her uncle is also there, she is forced to reside in a convent with a number of other afflicted girls.  This is a heartbreaking story of a beautiful girl who is separated from her family at a young age.  Her father, a seaman, comes to visit occasionally, but Rachel longs for her mother and siblings.  Not only is she denied a normal childhood, but the leper colony falls way behind the Western world in terms of creature comforts, like running water and electricity.  Overall, the book is very sad, with very few bright moments, but it is not weepy.  Rachel’s spirit is indomitable for the most part, but tragedy seems to be lurking around every corner.  The author does a great job of giving the reader a real sense of the community and how it serves as both home and prison for its residents.  Exile to Moloka’i is basically a life sentence, and residents who do obtain a “parole” after having tested negative for leprosy for a prescribed length of time sometimes choose not to leave.  Families have abandoned them as pariahs, so that cured individuals have nowhere else to go.  The only other disease I can think of that has caused this type of quarantine is tuberculosis, and TB at that time didn’t have nearly the stigma that leprosy did.  Rachel earns our admiration and our compassion as she treads a path that most of us cannot imagine.

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