Saturday, November 28, 2009

Moloka'i by Alan Brennert

In Kalawao only two things were truly stationary: two small islands, Okala and Mokopu...they had weathered the storms and seas of centuries, and they were a comforting link to a time when men flew like birds, a time before leprosy (page 101).

Moloka'i is a book about courage, and living life to its fullest with dignity, in spite of harsh treatment from society. It's a journey I suggest you take. By understanding what happened at Molokai hopefully its history will never be repeated.

While the events are real, this is a work of fiction based on the lives of people with leprosy (now Hansen's Disease) and the remarkable individuals who chose to care from them on Molokai.

Rather than keeping me at arm's length from the subject, the author excelled in creating the time period so I felt and saw the events taking place.

Throughout the book I kept asking myself how I would have responded to the panic about leprosy. Would I have gone to help or just turn my back like many people did? Was it right to strip people of their rights and freedom?

Starting in 1891, the book follows the life of Rachel who we first meet as a young girl at age five. At the end of the book in 1970, she goes to her grave a free woman having spent most of her life in quarantine.

As it turns out, leprosy was less contagious than tuberculosis. People panicked when they couldn't explain or understand the disease. Being labeled a leper meant confinement of the individual but also a black mark on the family. Many lives were destroyed but at Kalaupapa life went on.
This was life, and if some things were Kapu, others weren't; she (Rachel) had to stop regretting the ones that were and start enjoying the ones that were not (page 216).
There were two leper colony settlements. The first was Kalawao where Father Damien lived and worked. After his death the settlement moved six miles to the other side of the peninsula which was drier. This was called Kalaupapa and is the setting for Moloka'i.

After reading Moloka'i I visited Kalaupapa and hiked down the 103 year old Pali trail. The sea cliffs are the highest in the world. So beautiful and yet I could see how they would feel like a prison to those who were brought here against their will. As one character, Haleola, remarked:
I wanted to see it (Kalaupapa) once, without seeing the Pali (cliffs). Without the walls. As though I was free. (page 185)
My advice is to read Moloka'i. Be prepared to feel emotions. In the end celebrate freedom.

Rob's Grade: A B C D

Moloka'i by Alan Brennert, St. Martin's Press, New York, Copyright 2003


  1. This spring I missed the opportunity to pay a visit to Molokai while I was in Oahu. I came back to mainland and saw this novel at the bookstore. Since then I've had this book on my to-be-read pile. I am prepared that this book will stir up much emotion.

  2. Hi Matt,

    Thanks for being the first to write a comment on my new blog. I appreciate you stopping by.

    Definitely read the book and hike to Kalaupapa. It's an amazing 6 mile adventure. I wrote about the hike and the tour of the settlement on my other website, Beat of Hawaii (just enter Molokai in the search box to see the posts).

    You're right about the book stirring emotions. I wasn't ready the first time and put it back on the shelf for a year.

    Take care and my best to you,


  3. Nice review, Rob. I thought it was very informative, in particular the part about the leper colony.


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