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Moloka'i by Alan Brennert

New York: St. Martin's Press, c2003 389 pages ISBN: 031230434X


Young Rachel Kalama, growing up in idyllic Honolulu in the 1890s, is part of a big, loving Hawaiian family, and dreams of seeing the far-off lands that her father, a merchant seaman, often visits. But at the age of seven, Rachel and her dreams are shattered by the discovery that she has leprosy. Forcibly removed from her family, she is sent to Kalaupapa, the isolated leper colony on the island of Moloka'i. In her exile she finds a family of friends to replace the family she's lost: a native healer, Haleola, who becomes her adopted "auntie" and makes Rachel aware of the rich culture and mythology of her people; Sister Mary Catherine Voorhies, one of the Franciscan sisters who care for young girls at Kalaupapa; and the beautiful, worldly Leilani, who harbors a surprising secret. At Kalaupapa she also meets the man she will one day marry. True to historical accounts, Moloka'i is the story of an extraordinary human drama, the full scope and pathos of which has never been told before in fiction. But Rachel's life, though shadowed by disease, isolation, and tragedy, is also one of joy, courage, and dignity. This is a story about life, not death; hope, not despair. It is not about the failings of flesh, but the strength of the human spirit.



From Publishers Weekly /* Starred Review */ Compellingly original in its conceit, Brennert's sweeping debut novel tracks the grim struggle of a Hawaiian woman who contracts leprosy as a child in Honolulu during the 1890s and is deported to the island of Moloka'i, where she grows to adulthood at the quarantined settlement of Kalaupapa. Rachel Kalama is the plucky, seven-year-old heroine whose family is devastated when first her uncle Pono and then she develop leprous sores and are quarantined with the disease. While Rachel's symptoms remain mild during her youth, she watches others her age dying from the disease in near total isolation from family and friends. Rachel finds happiness when she meets Kenji Utagawa, a fellow leprosy victim whose illness brings shame on his Japanese family. After a tender courtship, Rachel and Kenji marry and have a daughter, but the birth of their healthy baby brings as much grief as joy, when they must give her up for adoption to prevent infection. The couple copes with the loss of their daughter and settle into a productive working life until Kenji tries to stop a quarantined U.S. soldier from beating up his girlfriend and is tragically killed in the subsequent fight. The poignant concluding chapters portray Rachel's final years after sulfa drugs are discovered as a cure, leaving her free to abandon Moloka'i and seek out her family and daughter. Brennert's compassion makes Rachel a memorable character, and his smooth storytelling vividly brings early 20th-century Hawaii to life. Leprosy may seem a macabre subject, but Brennert transforms the material into a touching, lovely account of a woman's journey as she rises above the limitations of a devastating illness. From Kirkus A gritty story of love and survival in a Hawaiian leper colony: more a portrait of old Hawaii than a compelling narrative. The chronicle of leprosy-infected Rachel Kalama begins in 1891 in Honolulu and ends in the late 1960s on isolated Moloka'i, site of the Kalaupapa Leprosy settlement. As much a record of her life as of the changes in Hawaii itself over the years, screenwriter and fantasy author Brennert (Her Pilgrim Soul, 1990, etc.) vividly and graphically details both the landscape and the disease as he tells Rachel's story. She's five at the start, when her father, a sailor, comes back in time for Christmas with another doll for her collection and gifts for her older siblings Sarah, Ben, and Kimo. A few months later, Rachel is found to have leprosy, and the happy life the family has enjoyed ends. Considered dangerously contagious, Rachel is sent to the settlement on Molaka'i. There, in a hospital run by Catholic nuns, she lives with other young girls affected in varying degrees. As the years pass, Rachel's friends die; she befriends Sister Catherine, whose affection will sustain her; but, with the exception of her father, she has no contact with her family. Poor Rachel is doomed not only to suffer horribly but also to bear witness to history: a history that includes the end of the monarchy, the US annexation, the arrival of movies and airplanes, the Depression, and Pearl Harbor. Brennert also details changes in the treatment of leprosy--herbal injections, surgery, and, finally, the cure in the 1940's: sulfa derivatives. While Hawaii changes, Rachel grows up, falls in love, and marries Kenji, a fellow patient. She bears a daughter, but Ruth must immediately give the child up for adoption to avoid infection. Amid the heartbreak, Kenji is murdered and Rachel's symptoms worsen (she loses the fingers of her right hand). Rachel, though, is a survivor, and unexpected reunions compensate as she returns to a much-changed Honolulu. Not a comfortable read, but certainly instructive.



Alan Brennert was born in Englewood, New Jersey. He holds a Bachelor's degree in English from California State University at Long Beach, and also did graduate work in screenwriting at UCLA and has lived in California since 1973. He is a TV producer, novelist as well as an Emmy Award-winning screenwriter (L.A. Law). His short story, Ma Qui, won the 1991 Best Short Story Nebular Award. He lives in Southern California, but his heart is in Hawai'i.


Honolulu (2009) Kindred Spirits (Tor Books, 1984; reprinted 1992, 1999) Time and Chance (1990) Short stories: Her Pilgrim Soul And Other Stories (Tor Books, 1990) Ma Qui And Other Phantoms (Pulphouse Press, 1991; limited edition) Interview via BookBrowse: Alan Brennert discusses Moloka'i What prompted your interest in the subject of leprosy, or Hansen's disease as it is now called? Well, first and foremost, I love Hawai'i. The first time I set foot there, twenty-four years ago, I felt as if I were coming home. The place and the people have drawn me back year after year, and the history of the Hawaiian people is one that holds a special fascination for me. I visited Moloka'i for the first time in 1996, but it wasn't until three years later that I began reading about Kalaupapa, the leprosy settlement on the island's north shore. And the more I read, the more I came to understand that here was a compelling, true-life story that had never fully been told before. Did your research include a trip to Kalaupapa itself? Yes, of course. As well as many, many days spent at the Hawai'i State Archives, the Bishop Museum, the Hawai'i Historical Society, the Honolulu Medical Library, and other institutions. When I first began my research, I searched in vain for one book that might present a comprehensive overview of the history of Kalaupapa, from its beginnings in 1866 to the present. It didn't exist. I had to write it, or at least an outline of it. Before I could write my novel, I first had to write myself a history of Kalaupapa.


With the help of, I acquired an extensive library of books--on Kalaupapa, Hansen's disease, Hawaiian history--dating back to the 1880s. From disparate sources I cobbled together a timeline of the real-life history of Kalaupapa and the people who lived there. It's nearly thirty pages long and is a detailed chronology of the people and events that make up the history of the settlement. I was quite flattered when the librarians at the Bishop Museum expressed interest in obtaining a copy for their archives, which I was happy to send them. How much of Moloka'i is based on fact, and how much is fiction? Nearly everything in it has a basis in fact. The details of life on Moloka'i came in part from letters and journals in the Hawai'i State Archives, where I actually held in my hands letters on yellowed paper, written over a century ago by leprosy patients exiled from home and family. It was moving and humbling. I wanted to do right by these people who have been largely forgotten by history--I wanted to present their story as no one else has. I read oral histories and biographies of patients, distilled them down to their common elements, and made that the armature of Rachel Kalama's life--on which I then expanded and embroidered. Rachel is entirely a fictional character, but the events and people that shape her life are inspired by actual people and events. Many of the book's supporting characters are actual people: Brother Dutton, Mother Marianne, Ambrose Hutchison, Lawrence Judd, J.D. McVeigh, Drs. Oliver and Swift and Goodhue and Fennel and Sloan, and many more. Even what happens to the character of Leilani is based on actual medical case histories. The most famous name associated with Moloka'i is Father Damien de Veuster, the Catholic priest who went to Kalaupapa to minister to the sick, and who himself died of Hansen's disease. Yet he has only a very small role in your novel. Why? As fine a man as Damien was, he was just one man who died of leprosy...out of thousands of other men and women who lived and died there, pretty much anonymously. But because Damien was white, and a priest, he has commanded the world's attention all these years. I like to think that he'd find this as unjust as I do. I felt while writing the book that I was in some small way giving voice to those whose voices have been lost to time, and I hope they'd approve of what I've done. What relevance does the story of Kalaupapa hold for us today? Leprosy was once considered as incurable as AIDS is now; both unfairly stigmatize the people who suffer from them. Leprosy victims in the 19th century were quarantined as zealously as SARS patients are today. But the prejudice, fear, and abrogation of civil rights suffered by Hansen's patients is far and away more terrible than anything AIDS or SARS patients have yet suffered, and casts a cautionary light on our own society's attitudes toward those with fatal, communicable diseases.


About Molokai

Molokai is an island in the Hawaiian archipelago. It is 38 by 10 miles in size with a land area of 260 square miles making it the fifth largest of the main Hawaiian Islands and the 27th largest island in the United States. It lies east of Oahu across the 25-mile wide Kaiwi Channel and north of Lnai, separated from it by the Kalohi Channel. Molokai is built from two distinct volcanoes known as East Molokai and the much smaller West Molokai. The highest point is Kamakou on East Molokai, at 4,970 feet . East Molokai volcano, like the Koolau Range on Oahu, is today only what remains standing of the southern half of the original mountain. The northern half suffered a catastrophic collapse about 1.5 million years ago and now lies as a debris field scattered northward across the Pacific Ocean bottom, while what remains on the island are the highest sea cliffs in the world. Views of these sea cliffs are presented in the movie Jurassic Park III. The south shore of Molokai boasts the longest fringing reef in the U.S. and its holdings-- nearly 25 mi long Molokai is known as the long time residence of Father Damien de Veuster, a Belgian priest and canonized Roman Catholic saint who cared for sufferers of Hansen's Disease, also known as leprosy. Historically, a small north shore colony on Molokai, Kalaupapa, was a refuge for sufferers of Hansen's Disease, but there are no active cases of Hansen's Disease on Molokai today. Those who continue to live in the settlement are patients who chose to stay after the segregation policy was lifted in 1969. Inhabited from about 650 AD, the Hawaiians fished the rough surrounding ocean by outrigger canoe with nets and spears for over 1200 years. They also farmed the land, coaxing sweet potatoes, onions and taro from the harsh volcanic soil. With the vines of the sweet potato, their main vegetable, they fed their pigs, which in turn they used to barter with other villagers in the eastern valleys. While the peninsula was not largely settled, it was traveled much and used extensively. The entire area is divided and subdivided by low rock walls that continue for mile after mile, creating thousands of small lots of every imaginable shape.


There is no written history of the people who built them; historians theorize that they were constructed as pens for raising pigs, as windbreaks for growing crops and possibly as property boundaries and land divisions. The early Hawaiians built fishing shrines called heiau as places to make offerings for their safety while fishing in the rough waters that surrounded the peninsula. These heiau were platforms built of stone in circular and square shapes. Some of their surfaces are filled with coral, while others have elaborate enclosures lined with flat rocks on which offerings of fish or shells were placed

Father Damien and the Lepers of Kalaupapa

Kalaupapa's reputation as a leprosy colony is wellknown. Hansen's disease, the proper term for leprosy, is believed to have spread to Hawaii from China. The first documented case of leprosy occurred in 1848. Its rapid spread and unknown cure precipitated the urgent need for complete and total isolation. Surrounded on three sides by the Pacific ocean and cut off from the rest of Molokai by 1600-foot sea cliffs, Kalaupapa provided the environment. In early 1866, the first leprosy victims were shipped to Kalaupapa and existed for 7 years before Father Damien arrived. The area was void of all amenities. No buildings, shelters nor potable water were available. These first arrivals dwelled in rock enclosures, caves, and in the most rudimentary shacks, built of sticks and dried leaves. Taken after Damien had constructed most of the houses seen here, this photo shows the stark, barren peninsula and settlement at Kalawao in the 1880s. Folklore and oral histories recall some of the horrors: the leprosy victims, arriving by ship, were sometimes told to jump overboard and swim for their lives. Occasionally a strong rope was run from the anchored ship to the shore, and they pulled themselves painfully through the high, salty waves, with legs and feet dangling below like bait on a fishing line. The ship's crew would then throw into the water whatever supplies had been sent, relying on currents to carry them ashore or the exiles swimming to retrieve them. In 1873, Father Damien deVeuster, aged 33, arrived at Kalaupapa. A Catholic missionary priest from Belgium, he served the leprosy patients at Kalaupapa until his death. A most dedicated and driven man, Father Damien did more than simply administer the faith: he built homes, churches and coffins; arranged for medical services and funding from Honolulu, and became a parent to his diseased wards. Damien contracted the disease, and after 16 years of selfless service, died in 1889.


In 1886, Brother Joseph Dutton arrived at Kalaupapa to assist Father Damien. Dutton, an energetic and dedicated missionary priest, assumed many of the duties Damien was unable to perform as his leprosy progressed. Mother Marianne, another revered servant, devoted 29 years on the peninsula as an administrator, nurse and educator. She spent her life on the go, even as her age climbed well into the seventies. She died in 1918. In 1977, Pope Paul VI declared Father Damien to be venerable, the first of three steps that lead to sainthood. Pope John Paul II declared Damien blessed in 1995, the second step before canonization as a saint. With the advent of sulfone drugs in the 1940s, the disease was put in remission and the sufferers are no longer contagious. The fewer than 100 former patients remaining on the peninsula are free to travel or relocate elsewhere, but most have chosen to remain where they have lived for so long. The Lepers of Molokai by Jack London, 1908 Women's Home Companion Story: Koolau the Leper by Jack London 1909

Discussion Questions (from

1. The book's opening paragraph likens Hawaii in the 19th century to a garden. In what ways is Hawai'i comparable to another, Biblical, garden? 2. Given what was known at the time of the causes and contagion of leprosy, was the Hawaiian government's isolation of patients on Moloka'i justified or not? 3. How is Hawaii's treatment of leprosy patients similar to today's treatment of SARS and AIDS patients? How is it different? 4. What does 'ohana mean? How does it manifest itself throughout Rachel's life? 5. What does surfing represent to Rachel? 6. Rachel's mother Dorothy embraced Christianity; her adopted auntie, Haleola, is a believer in the old Hawaiian religion. What does Rachel believe in? 7. There are many men in Rachel's life--her father Henry, her Uncle Pono, her first lover Nahoa, her would-be lover Jake, her husband Kenji. What do they have in common? What don't they? 8. Rachel's full name is Rachel Aouli Kalama Utagawa. What does each of her names represent?


9. Did you as a reader regard Leilani as a man or a woman? 10. Discuss the parallels and inversions between the tale of heroic mythology Rachel relates on pages 296-298, and what happens to Kenji later in this chapter. 11. Imagine yourself in the place of Rachel's mother, Dorothy Kalama. How would you have handled the situation? 12. The novel tells us a little, but not all, of what Sarah Kalama feels after her accidental betrayal of her sister Rachel. Imagine what kind of feelings, and personal growth, she might have gone through in the decades following this incident. 13. In what ways is Ruth like her biological mother? How do you envision her relationship with Rachel evolving and maturing in the twenty years between 1948 and 1970? 14. Considering the United States' role in the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, was the American response adequate or not? In recent years a "Hawaiian sovereignty" movement has gathered momentum in the islands--do you feel they have a moral and/or legal case?

For Further Reading

Shark Dialogues by Kiana Davenport The House of Pride & Tales of Hawaii by Jack London The Love Remains by Katherine Kama `ema `e Smith Hawaii by James Michener The Floating City by Pamea Ball Mahalo, My Love by Ida Hills The Colony by John Tayman The Last Aloha by Gaellen Quinn Hotel Honolulu by Paul Theroux Bird of another Heaven by James D. Houston The Pearl Diver by Jeff Talarigo



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