I really REALLY wish I were blogging about a recent trip to Moloka’i and Honolulu… alas, I’m merely posting about books of the same names. A Hawaiian vaca sounds REALLY good right now with 17 feet of snow outside my window. Sigh…
In early December I bought Moloka’i for my mom for Christmas. She and my dad went to Hawaii on their honeymoon nearly 36 years ago (!!!), and haven’t quite made it back. I hope they’re planning to return soon (like next week) and bring their three lovely daughters along with them… (hmmm? how about it?). Anyway, before I wrapped up the book, I read it. I couldn’t help myself! I rationalized that my mom would have passed it along to me after she read it anyway, so I was really just saving her the trouble.
Alan Brennert’s novel is a lovely piece of historical fiction about a young girl living in Hawaii in the late 1800s. Rachel Kalama is diagnosed with leprosy, “the separating sickness” - so called because once diagnosed with it, Hawaiians were permanently separated from the rest of society. The novel is the story of her life in the leper colony of Kalaupapa on the island of Moloka’i. Hers is a rich and fulfilling life, despite her illness, and Brennert paints a vivid picture of the unexpectedly vibrant life of lepers on Moloka’i.
Beyond Rachel’s personal story, I loved learning about the misunderstood disease and how the government dealt with the epidemic. Also known as Hansen’s Disease, leprosy has been around since biblical times. The native Hawaiians were hard hit by this and other diseases with the arrival of American and European colonists in the 1800s. There certainly were white people (“haoles“) who contracted leprosy and were even sent to Moloka’i, but it was predominantly a native epidemic. While reading the book, I became fascinated with leprosy and I did a little research. Here are a few fun (?) facts I learned:
* Leprosy is a bacterial disease that is believed to be transmitted through respiratory droplets. I think the jury is still out on the precise mode of transmission. Kind of crazy for a disease that’s been around for thousands of years, but maybe that’s why it’s still around – it’s kept doctors (and bloggers) guessing!
* Contrary to folklore, leprosy does not cause limbs or digits to fall off. Instead, the tissues are affected by the progression of the disease and fingers and toes become deformed.
* The minimum incubation period is as little as a few weeks; the maximum reported has been as long as 30 years!
* Carville, Lousiana is the home to another U.S. leper colony and is also the site of a museum devoted to Hansen’s Disease.
* At the publication of Moloka’i, Brennert reported that there are still around 30 lepers living in the Kalaupapa settlement on the island.
I really loved the book, and I love that I learned so much from it. Once I get through the pile of paperbacks on my nightstand, I may order a couple books about leprosy and Moloka’i. I just wish I had read the book 4 years ago – I spent one week of my honeymoon on Maui, within site of Moloka’i. You can ferry over there and take tours, and I really wish I had! I found this website, where a travel writer describes her mule ride tour of Moloka’i – a good read!
A friend from work also honeymooned in Hawaii, so I passed the book recommendation along to her. She immediately ordered Moloka’i and Honolulu, also by Alan Brennert. She lent me Honolulu, which I greedily dug into.
Honolulu, also historical fiction, tells the story of a Korean “picture bride”, who arrives in Honolulu to marry the Korean husband of whom she has seen only one [not quite accurate] photo. The novel takes the reader through Jin’s life in Honolulu, highlighting her independence and entrepreneurial spirit against the backdrop of an increasingly multicultural melting pot. I learned a lot about the history of the city and the islands, particularly the relationship between the native Hawaiians (who, by the early 1900s were largely intermarried with Asians, Samoans, Portugese, and people of other cultures – there are very few true Hawaiians left today) and the haoles. Brennert clearly did his research for this novel, as he weaves in current events like court cases and the storming of the infamous red light district of Iliwei.
I did enjoy Honolulu – very much – but I think my heart belongs to Moloka’i. I highly recommend both – particularly as you take breaks from shoveling and de-icing!