Cannonball Read IV: Moloka’i by Alan Brennert
Alan Brennert’s novel is a beautifully-wrought tale of Hawaii’s turn-of-the-century leper colony, told with careful attention to historical detail, political context, cultural sensitivity, and with total respect for the humanity of the colony’s quarantined residents. Brennert’s tale spans the period between 1891 when five-year-old Rachel Kalama is first discovered to bear the dreaded mark, is taken from her family and sent into lifetime quarantine on Moloka’i island, to her death there in 1970. In between, we accompany Rachel, other patients, and their caregivers as they battle depression, illness, ignorance, abuse, and social ostracism while fighting to preserve their dignity and live out their lives as fully as possible.
Rachel loses many of her childhood and adult friends as they succumb to the horrible disfigurement and systemic weakening the disease inflicts. At the same time, she discovers that she has a variety of the disease which, while incurable, nonetheless evolves slowly, giving her precious time to grow older, form adult relationships, take risks, and dream of a future, while giving the reader the gift of a glimpse into this unique world. What makes Brennert’s work so special is that not only does he turn what was for too long a “dirty little secret” into a story of both pathos and courage, but he also exposes the cultural taboos, the social stigmatization, the superstitions, and the political machinations that swirled around these afflicted people.
Brennert cleverly weaves a great deal of historical research into his tale, so that we get to meet famous authors Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London, who in fact visited the colony; we see the evolution of technology with the introduction of the gramophone and moving pictures; we observe the political changes in Hawaiian government under U.S. rule during this period, the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor and the Japanese internment camps back in the States, and much more; we view up close the medical experimentation that was done with volunteers of the colony in the search for a cure; and we experience firsthand the trials of the religious (and non-religious) caregivers who dedicated themselves—often for a lifetime-to caring for their patients.
Despite a great deal of progress in the treatment of leprosy, it wasn’t until the 1980s that Hansen’s Disease (as leprosy is now known) was ultimately considered curable. And it is the case that there are still today thousands of leper colonies throughout the world whose desperate souls have yet to be allowed into the modern era. But Brennert’s book, with his indomitable heroine Rachel, is an inspiring reminder of the resilience and courage of the human spirit, and as such, should be on everyone’s reading list.
This review is part of Cannonball Read IV. Read all about it, and find more of valyruh’s reviews on the group blog.
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