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Book Review: Moloka’i

Alan Brennert’s Moloka’i illustrates the personal life of a Native Hawaiian individual who becomes afflicted with Hansen’s Disease and is forced into isolation on Kalaupapa, the established ‘leper’ colony of Moloka’i in Hawaii, most prominent in the 19th and 20th centuries. The protagonist, Rachel Kalama, dreams of following in her merchant father’s footsteps by visiting distant lands, but that hope is quickly shattered when a small, suspicious mark appears on her skin at school. Once discovered, she is uprooted from her home in Honolulu and is forced to relocate to the community of Kalaupapa, away from her family and friends. Though the predicament she’s in is enough to have anyone fall into despair, she continues to persist, refusing to fall in the face of adversity. Throughout the novel, Rachel suffers through heartache and grief, experiences joy and harmony, and ultimately builds a life for herself surrounded by the people she loves and holds on to their memories.

Though the characters are mostly fictional, the tragedies and triumphs they have faced mirror the experiences of real individuals. Kalaupapa on Moloka’i is a real place, where real people who suffered from the disease were forced to quarantine, just like Rachel. However, though they may have faced the loss of their friends, family, and potentially their culture, they were able to build a new community amongst themselves and live in relative harmony together. The novel is extremely well-written and moving; all of the emotions felt by the characters and the hardships they face are passionately illustrated. It’s evident that the author went to great lengths to portray the lives of these characters as accurately as possible to real individuals and real historical events: “The details of life on Moloka'i came in part from letters and journals in the Hawai'i State Archives, where I actually held in my hands letters on yellowed paper, written over a century ago by leprosy patients exiled from home and family. It was moving and humbling.” He also mentions what initially inspired him to write the novel by saying, “I wanted to do right by these people who have been largely forgotten by history--I wanted to present their story as no one else has.”

Perhaps most inspiringly is the overall message of the novel. Despite Kalaupapa being the place to isolate those who are afflicted with Hansen’s Disease, they build a community and continue to live. Even in the constant presence of death, they still fight for their hopes and dreams, and fight for lives worth living and for people worth loving. On a numerical scale, this book deserves a 5/5.

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