Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Paradise Lost

Beaches, especially tropical ones, are among my favorite places to be.  I associate the beach with the people and aspects of my life I’ve loved.  There is the great open beauty, the white sand and even the shells.  Then there’s that something extra, the way the waves suggest a wild independence and freedom, especially once I learned to dive under them without getting hurt.

My one very brief visit to Hawaii confirmed how much more I'd like to explore it someday.  Not just the beauty but the history as well.  Still, it was with some reluctance that I finally picked up and read Moloka'i by Alan Brennert.  Though it was not in time for our book group’s discussion, it was that very discussion that actually drove me to read the book.  For Moloka'i was once where those with Hansen’s disease, then called leprosy, were banished to when it was discovered they had the disease.
The book is a fictionalized account of a real colony.  While it does include a few real people, the main focus is on a fictionalized child who was diagnosed with the disease around age 6 and sent alone to live on Moloka'i.  Rachel’s youth is probably the main reason I put off reading the book; it turns out she is also the main reason I found it so compelling. 

Gauguin went to the South Pacific in the late 1800s, roughly the same time period where this book begins.  What I learned at a recent exhibit was that his famous paintings were more fantasy than reality.  He was about 100 years too late for what he was looking for; he expected the old ways and what he found was a more structured society that had been influenced by the missionaries and other foreigners who had come to the islands.  It is said Gauguin died of syphilis but is there mention of how many others may have died as a result of his being there?  Perhaps not. 

Hawaii appears to be a bit similar to other tropical islands.  The influx of outsiders took over their world and changed it.  Old ways and religions were shunned and even surfing was disdained.  The missionaries brought their version of religion and the U.S. government brought its version of how life should be.  Like many remote places, the locals, known as the Kama'aina, had no immunity to the diseases also brought in by the foreigners.  As a result, a large portion of the local population died.  Leprosy was just one more disease carried in, only since it was more biblical and visual, I think it scared people even more. 

By the time Rachel is sent to Moloka'i in the 1890s, the living conditions, while still lacking, were much improved over earlier times when people were simply dumped off the boat and had to swim to shore to then forage their own way.  There were now safer places for children to stay and lead a relatively ordered life. 

The dichotomy is that though they were in a paradise, it was also their jail.  People couldn't leave and connections to the outside world were limited, especially in the early years.  How much would I love my tropical beaches if I could never leave or see those I love?  Fortunately, I don't have to make that choice.

There is a lot of heartbreak, people do die, but there is also a lot of love, compassion and spirit in the souls who lived there.  And there is humanity.  This disease doesn’t discriminate; it affects the old, the young, those with a good heart and those who are filled with darkness.  You even have to laugh when teenagers do what teenagers do, sick or not; they sneak out for a dance, drink a beer or indulge their curiosity about sex.   There’s also baseball, horse-racing and of course, there’s surfing.  Community develops.  People laugh, and yes, they even fall in love.
We watch as Rachel grows from a small child into becoming a woman with friends and family, her Moloka'i’ family.  Through her eyes, we see how the colony changes over the years, and sadly, we also feel her pain when those she loves die. 

This book is about the strength and fortitude of the people who lived on Moloka'i.  Rachel's character shows us one woman’s recalcitrant stance against the disease.  Recalcitrant is a word that makes me smile because it means stubbornly deviant and it describes Rachel’s attitude perfectly.
The reality of it is that people may have gone to Moloka'i to die but there was an awful lot of living going on along the way.

Something to think about the next time I walk along my favorite beach…


Tuesday, May 1, 2012

M is for Murder, My Love

I’m in love.  He’s tall, dark and handsome; he’s even rich and with a name like Dante, you know he’s hot.   Too bad he’s also a gangster, especially since he and his organization, and I use that term loosely, are in the crosshairs of the tenacious private detective Kinsey Millhone.   

I’ve read all of Sue Grafton’s novels but V is for Vengeance is one I’ve enjoyed the most.  Here, Kinsey has unwittingly stumbled into a large retail shoplifting operation while doing her least favorite thing, shopping.  Being her usual self, she’s like a dog with a bone.  Once Kinsey gets her teeth into a case, she doesn’t let go, even if her client asks her to, and trouble always follows. 

The book has some of its usual characters along with a few blasts from the past, though it is the satellite characters, Nora and Dante, I like best.  Nora is the bored wife of a wealthy and powerful lawyer, who is currently cheating on her; Dante is a loan shark and head of the family business.  As I watched them circle each other, I just knew an affair between them would have challenges.  Yet, I found I was cheering for them, even though I knew it was against the odds. 

Dante reminded me of how I felt about John Travolta’s character in Pulp Fiction; yes, he was a killer but I did feel a little sad when he was killed.  Dante is a much different character yet I still really hoped he would make it through alive and well.  How does it work out?  For that, you'll need to read the book. 

It does have me wondering what Sue Grafton will do once she publishes the last book in the alphabet.  I’ve read all of them, beginning with A is for Alibi.  What will happen to Kinsey in the end?  I guess we’ll have to stay tuned. 

Since I couldn’t warm myself with Dante, I decided to warm myself with another series, a cozy set in Quebec by Louise Penny.  It is here that I found another who captivated my heart. 

Unlike the gorgeous Dante, Armand Gamache is a happily married, middle-aged man with a little extra weight and warm trusting eyes.  He’s also the head of homicide for the Sûreté du Québec police force in Montreal.  Gamache has the uncanny ability to make sense out of murders that have none.  His theory is that it made sense to the murderer and once he figures it out, it will indeed be logical to the rest of us.  Part of his charm is his low key trusting manner.  People talk to him and end up sharing way more than was their intention. 

Of course, there’s one or two who don’t like him and with an old case still haunting him, he may be just a little too trusting.  

Three Pines has a problem, people keep getting murdered.  This brings Gamache and his team into their midst.  In the first of the series, Still Life, it is the nicest person in town who is murdered, which makes it challenging to find out why someone felt inclined to kill her.  In the next, A Fatal Grace, it’s the nastiest person in town, and this time, it’s a challenge to find someone who didn't want her dead.   

Three Pines has its own assortment of eccentric characters.  There is the very sweet Clara, a gifted but insecure artist, married to Peter, a more successful one.  Clara has the gift to see what others don’t, and more importantly, to see the best in people.  While I do admire that in her and would love to say I did as well, given that I am a bit of a cynic, you know I can't say so with a straight face.    

That brings me to the character at the other end of the spectrum, the very irascible Ruth Zardo, an old, contentious, rude woman who doesn’t care to see the good in anyone.  Nevertheless, our scotch drinking old lady is a poet; one that Gamache admires.  Her words are quite gloomy:

Who hurt you once so far beyond repair
That you would greet each overture with curling lip?
It was not always so. 

Don’t you just love it?  It’s so, bleak, so melancholy.  Or am I just showing my dark side?  

There are plenty of other interesting characters to be found in this quaint little village and each one adds a little color and depth to the picture.  It is with their help that Gamache ferrets out the mystery and solves the crime. 

Small quaint village, charming eccentric people, a good detective with something haunting him; these are essential ingredients to any good cozy mystery.  Still, with enough murders to make it a series, how cozy can this village really be?  On that cheery note,  I'll leave you with another Ruth Zardo poem, from A Fatal Grace:

When my death us do part
Then shall forgiven and forgiving meet again,
Or will it be, as always was, too late?

Perhaps I should have stuck with Dante...