A friend of mine sent me this book about a year ago when I first explained how much I had been reading and how happily distracted it made me. She sent it to me along with The Book Thief, and hyped up The Book Thief much more. (With good cause – the use of the grim reaper as a narrator in that book was pulled off flawlessly. If any of you saw the movie without reading the literary genius that was that book I highly advise you reconsider. I should probably go back through it and properly review it here.) Of Moloka’i she only said, “I can’t really remember what it’s about but I remember how much I loved that little girl.” I threw it on my bookshelf and dusted it off specifically for the purposes of this blog, which only made me feel like an idiot after – knowing this beautiful work had been sitting on my bookshelf for a year.
Each time I read a book that’s for this blog, I mark up my electronic copies endlessly with highlighting and writing. But in my hard copies I do a slight I dog ear on a page (I just can’t bring myself to write in a book – it’s like something inherent in me) for things I thought were moving, disturbing, things I related to, things I thought were brilliant or horribly written – anything I might want to come back later. This is what my copy of Moloka’i looked like when I was done with it:
Moloka’i is beautifully written (in literary terms it is flawless and yet the writing never feels pompous or difficult to wade through), and focused on the life of Rachel Kalama, initially a seven-year-old living in Hawaii in the 1890’s who, per the back of the book, “dreams of visiting far-off lands like her father, a merchant seaman.” One day she starts developing small patches of redness on her leg, and her mother discovers she can’t feel anything over these small patches. It turns out that these are the days of Hawaii when Hansen’s disease, more commonly known as leprosy, was spreading throughout the isolated communities in Hawaii, and nobody knew the cause or form of transmission. The Hawaiian population deemed to have irreparably contracted it were sent to an isolated section of the island Moloka’i, to the settlement in Kalaupapa.
Moloka’i is about a lot of things, with a lot of themes (how we as a society handle illness, how illness affects the spirit as well as the body – and how much of that is connected to social theories of “normal,” what normal actually is, what defines family or childhood, I could go on), but at its core I think that Moloka’i demonstrated that in any circumstance, we all deal with hardships, we all experience joy, and those emotions link humanity.
The book spans the entirety of Rachel’s life and then some, and yet, unlike many books which try to do such an undertaking, never really feels like the author has taken on too much or that the story should have ended more appropriately 50 pages prior. She is initially separated from her family at such a young age, forced to live in a home with nuns in a foreign town and learn, younger than 10, what it is like to live an entirely new life. The author notes that while Rachel’s story is entirely fictional her experience is certainly rooted in the experiences of real people. Those with leprosy were segregated, taken from their family, friends, and forced to live in an isolated area of island. And that is what became “home.”
The way in which they show Rachel’s family and community dealing with her contracted illness remind me so much of the early stages of the AIDS epidemic. The community would not eat food cooked in Rachel’s home after they learned of the diagnosis. Once grown, even though a boy without the disease found Rachel beautiful and may have even loved her, he couldn’t bring himself to kiss her for fear of contracting it – no, couldn’t even bring himself to truly touch her, to hug her. There is an immense heaviness throughout the book of how difficult it is to have a disease that can’t be explained or understood.
I don’t pretend to understand the life of complete ostracism because of my disease, but I know what it’s like to have a friend speed away from me in D.C. because she’s annoyed with how slowly my pain forces me to walk. I know what it’s like to spend a weekend walking slowly around to see monuments on my own instead. I know what it’s like to have a man fall out of love with me because I am not spontaneous anymore, I don’t always want to make love and I cry more than I used to. Having chronic illness is difficult in and of itself.
I imagine it can only be 1000 times harder if people not only negatively react to you but are genuinely scared of your illness – if the government thinks you are better off far away from everything you know and love. And, like in the case of the character Rachel, if you have to fear that your own body is now a harmful, contagious force. I found it interesting that at one point in the book, World War II is occurring and the Japanese internment camps are mentioned. Brennert describes the way that Japanese Americans were forced to sell everything they owned for a fraction of their worth in a matter of days to enter camps. And it is very clear the parallel that exists between Japanese Americans and Hawaiians with leprosy: we almost want to chop off EVERYTHING we are afraid of as a society and hide it away in an isolated area, just to make us feel as though maybe it isn’t there. Pretend like the monster we don’t understand isn’t hiding under the bed. How cruel we can be when we are scared – and how we can quickly become the type of people who support cruelty.
And while those themes of fear, illness, and cultural norms run deep, so much deeper than I could provide you in a blog post, what I enjoyed just as much about the book were the story lines I found myself thinking about late into the night, when I should be sleeping, that had absolutely nothing to do with illness. A transgender female comes to live in Kalaupapa, and she is faced with how to date, and how potential suitors may react if they discover her sexual anatomy. In one case, a male suitor does aggressively react when he finds out. This transgender character feels a desperation to fit in with the females in the settlement, and identifies deeply with Rachel. What is gender? What is sexuality? What defines it? How much more complicated does gender become when wrapped up with illness and isolation?
There were story lines and questions of wanting to fall in love desperately, and not quite knowing how to do it. Of when to marry. Of when to decide to have sex. Of what happens if unexpected consequences of sex appear, like pregnancy. There is grieving in death. There is the ever-changing of definition of family to include those who are closest to you, and dealing with the sometimes difficult relationships of those blood relatives that feel emotionally furthest from you. There is the lingering of question of what you do when you know someone is in a violent domestic relationship. There is question of the effectiveness of the justice system and government in handling the real issues that are affecting the people. There is the joy in a birthday, surfing, finding a job, a first kiss, and dancing. There are parties and sneaking out at night. There are politics and bombs.
And while I was reading all of these story lines above, marinading on them in dark, I wasn’t thinking, “this is happening to a person with sores on them.” Rather, I thought, “this is happening to a person.” (Person, character…it all gets tangled up in my mind.)
Brennert has very cleverly written a book about humanity and history itself then encased it in a story about illness. He shows us that no matter what separates us, physical space, deep-rooted fear, diagnostics, we are all experiencing the same joys and hardships that make us human. We all stress, we all relax, and we all live. And the true importance there is that we see that this humanity has no boundaries – from the quarantined to the “normal.” We are all tied up together in human nature. Well done, Brennert.
I should offer more negative commentary, but on the writing I just don’t have it on this book. The only thing that caught my attention is more of a wondering, something I can’t even speak to. When I was reading Hawaiian traditions and language, I took it for granted that I was reading a book that was written by a Hawaiian (actually, I hadn’t really read the author’s name before the end and took it for granted I was reading something written by a Hawaiian female – interesting to me that I made that leap and perhaps a testament to Brennert’s writing). There is a large interview with the author in the back of my copy, though, and it became very apparent after finishing that this was a book written by a white male who loved Hawaii and had read a lot of history. I wonder how much he got right, and whether he got any of it wrong, and whether anyone feels like he appropriated their culture.
Or maybe it’s just the opposite. Maybe people are grateful for the culture being brought to light, and for the stories of those affected by Hansen’s in a time of leprosy to finally have a voice. All I’m sure of is that it was a damn good book – one of the single best I’ve ever read.