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…