Born just before the turn of the century, Rachel's life was much like that of any other young girl in Honolulu. Hawai'i was straddling the dividing line between the traditional ways of it's people and the modern changes wrought by the arrival of the haole
At five, she watched her beloved uncle Pono forced into quarantine with hundreds of others, mostly native Hawaiians on the island of Moloka'i when he was discovered to have developed leprosy. Not long after, her mother noticed the first signs of the same disease in Rachel. They tried to hide it, but a terrible slip of the tongue revealed the truth, and she too was finally removed from her family.
Angry at first, Rachel eventually was able to accept that, temporarily at least, Moloka'i was her new home. Raised by the nuns in Bishop Home, she made new friends and family, creating her own ohana
. Yet she never gave up hope that some day she would be cured and released from her prison. Moloka'i tells the tragic story not just of Rachel, but of Hawai'i, as they both came of age together. In every word and scene you can read just how deeply Brennert researched his subject, making both the disease and the culture equally important characters as that of Rachel. Rachel and the Hawaiian culture were both written with incredible depth and honesty. As an author, he made me smile, laugh, grieve, and rage in anger for Rachel and her people. Each time tragedy struck Rachel and Hawai'i, I cried with them. Yet, he also managed to educate me on something of which I was previously woefully ignorant. I have long been angry at how the native populations have been displaced and treated, but never seemed to connect the Hawaiian islanders with this same mistreatment. I now know better. I also know far more about leprosy, or Hansen's Disease as it is now known, than I ever wished to. And yet, I want to know more. Moloka'i was finally closed in 1980; incredible to think that only 30 short years ago these people, unbeknown to many I'm willing to bet, were living like caged animals in a zoo.
While Rachel's story is fictional, it could have easily been that of someone who actually survived this horrific tragedy. I am thankful to Mr. Brennert for opening my eyes to a piece of American history of which I knew nothing. It is an incredibly sad and moving story, and while he is not the first to bring this story to the public, his is undoubtedly the most widely read. I will be reading more; more of Brennert's novels, more on Moloka'i, and more on Hawaii's history and culture. I will also be recommending this novel to anyone who will listen to me.