Seven-year-old Rachel Aoulie Kalama lives an idyllic life in Hawaii surrounded by her loving family. She is cherished by her father,a merchant fisherman who is gone at sea most of the time, and her mother, a hardworking, Christian woman. She spends her days playing under palm trees and exploring the streets of Honolulu with her siblings until her mother discovers a rose-colored mark on the back of her leg. The family tries to hide the tell-tale signs of leprosy, or Hansen's disease, on her small body, but eventually the school inspector discovers her secret and Rachel's life changes forever. Torn from her family, Rachel is exiled to the island of Moloka'i where she is to spend her remaining years as a citizen of the Kalaupapa leprosy settlement, not allowed to leave, and isolated from all she knows. Her Uncle Pono, exiled to Kalaupapa before her will become the only family she is allowed to touch. Rachel is admitted to the nun's school at Kalaupapa where she befriends other little girls with Hansen's disease and begins to make a life for herself. Rachel builds a new family with Uncle Pono, and a healer named Haleola who becomes her "auntie." Sister Mary Katherine Voorhies, one of the nuns at the school, becomes a lifelong friend, and the lovely Leilani teaches Rachel that beauty is more than outward appearances.
Moloka'i spans the decades of Hawaii's history including the end of imperialism, United States annexation, and Pearl Harbor. It reveals the conflicts that arose between the polytheistic natives and proponents of Christianity. The book is based on historical fact, and the public's fear of leprosy victims at the time can be likened to the beginning of the modern AIDs epidemic. While the idea of imprisoning a portion of the general public due to fear of a disease seems extreme, protecting these people from ostracism and giving them a place to live and walk in freedom was in many ways an act of kindness at the time. Moloka'i draws the reader in to lush island life surrounded by exotic tropical forests and the ever present sound of the ocean breaking against the beach. Alan Brennert introduces us to a cast of characters that live lives filled with heartbreak, but even in their sorrow they find simple joy and unwavering love. Readers who enjoyed this book may want to try the books Easter Island by Jennifer Vanderbes or Bird of Another Heaven by James Houston.
Reviewed by cc, 4/14. Other reviews by cc.