Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Moloka'i by Alan Brennert

Historical fiction is not everyone's cup of tea. Over the years, students have groaned when I ask if they like it,  "'s boring." I tend to like historical fiction especially if I'm learning something new. I learned bundles about leprosy or Hansen's disease in this story. Rachel Kalama lives in O'ahu in the 1890s when she is diagnosed with leprosy. She is sent to Molokai as a 7-year-old where she grows up in a convent with other girls suffering from the disease. The stigma with having this disease not only affects Rachel, but her family as well. Fear of leprosy was culturally rampant and family and relatives connected in any way with lepers were known to loose jobs, divorce, or move. Rachel's family experiences all of these and more.

Brennert captures the paranoia and lack of knowledge regarding how people contracted Hansen's disease and wraps it in an emotional story from the eyes of Rachel from age 5 to 81, with a chronological focus on her as a young child, teenager, and middle-aged woman. Brennert is ambitious covering 1891-1970 and he has done quite a bit of research. He mixes in religion from old Hawaiian myths to the conversion of Christianity. He does a good job not getting preachy but leaving it up to the reader to figure out the answers. The author's note is interesting and there are book club questions as the end. 

Yep, it's a great book club book - there's plenty to mull over. Just look at the wide variety of reviews on Goodreads. One reviewer pooh-poohed the entire story because of the Japanese immigrants adopting a girl and insisting this would never happen. The reviewer lived in Japan which she felt gave her authority on the matter. She's probably right and her argument is sound, but  the adoption is such a minor part of the story that I didn't think it discredited the whole book. The author gets the leprosy right and the historical events occurring over an 80 year period. I was impressed with how much history Brennert covered in this book. It is loaded with facts too. I thought he did an excellent job showing them rather than telling but I can see some readers wanting more of the emotional side of the character. It was plenty emotional for me, I cried more times than I care to admit. The injustice and devastation of having this awful disease moved me plenty. Normally, I tiptoe around this kind of book not touching it, but Brennert doesn't linger on the tragedies and has most of the characters choosing hope and joy over bitterness with life.

The characters have to deal with death on a daily basis. Oftentimes this type of book is so depressing it is hard to read, but Brennert usually adds humor and hope following a tragic event. He straddles the fence quite  well in this area and also avoids becoming preachy in regard to religions and one-dimensional characters. The internal motivations of most characters are examined and explored giving a depth that allowed me to connect with them. He builds a community of people on Moloka'i that have many different personalities; most good-hearted and some not; most good-natured and some not; most accepting and some not. You get the picture. A mixed bag of characters in a small town.

The setting and tone of the story are set in the beginning quite well with Hawaiian culture, language, foliage, and geography. The contrasts between old Honolulu and modern Honolulu are sprinkled throughout, as well as, the slower historical changes that take place on Moloka'i. "Certain things stood out in memory, she couldn't say why: the weight and feel of a five-cent hapa'umi coin in her pocket; the taste of cold Tahiti lemonade on a hot day, palm fronds rustling like locusts high above, as she and her brothers played among the rice paddies and fish ponds of Waikiki." Brennert captures the clash of eastern and western civilization and his love for the Hawaiian islands rings through the eyes of Rachel like a church bell.

If you like nonfiction or history, particularly history on diseases, then I would recommend this book, but if you are a "'s boring" type person then happy pickings elsewhere for a book more to your liking.

4 out of 5 Smileys

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