Review: Moloka’i by Alan Brennert

Review: Moloka’i by Alan BrennertMoloka'i by Alan Brennert
Published by St. Martin's Griffin on 2004-10-04
Pages: 384
Genres: Literary Fiction
Source: Purchased myself
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This richly imagined novel, set in Hawai'i more than a century ago, is an extraordinary epic of a little-known time and place—-and a deeply moving testament to the resiliency of the human spirit.

Rachel Kalama, a spirited seven-year-old Hawaiian girl, dreams of visiting far-off lands like her father, a merchant seaman. Then one day a rose-colored mark appears on her skin, and those dreams are stolen from her. Taken from her home and family, Rachel is sent to Kalaupapa, the quarantined leprosy settlement on the island of Moloka'i. Here her life is supposed to end—-but instead she discovers it is only just beginning.

With a vibrant cast of vividly realized characters, Moloka'i is the true-to-life chronicle of a people who embraced life in the face of death.

Thoughts: Way back in 2007, Wendy’s (Musings of a Bookish Kitty) review of this novel put Moloka’i on my radar. My mother had long-ago told me about her trip to Moloka’i when she was in her twenties – she spoke about the extraordinary beauty of the island and meeting the “lepers” (or, as I discovered in this book, sufferers of Hassen’s disease) who continued to live even after their imprisonment came to an end. Her story, Wendy’s review, and my long-love of the Hawaii islands, made me want to read this book.

Sometimes you read a book and think “this book came at the right time”. Almost as though your life led up to a point which required you to read a certain book. Moloka’i was one of those books. I went on holiday to Honolulu this Christmas, and left with a deep appreciation for the islands and its people. Not just for their friendliness and charm, but for the vast suffering they had to endure. From death, disease, and a loss of a kingdom – all of it, I would argue, at the hands of European Americans. Haoles.

So, on to the book. I can’t work out if this book is brilliant because Alan Brennert is a genius – or if he is just a decent writer working with amazing material. Is it a colour-by-numbers of the Sistine Chapel, or a Rembrandt masterpiece of a garbage dump?  I don’t know, and frankly, I don’t care.  What I do know is that this is one hell of an epic, and I absolutely adored it all.

Don’t let the depressing premise put you off.  Sure, it starts off with a young girl being sent to a leper colony to die – but Moloka’i is much more than a tragedy, and it’s about so much more than a disease.  If anything, the book proves how life continues on in the most unlikely conditions.  Rachel – our protagonist – lives through an extraordinary chunk of Hawaiian history: from the loss of its kingdom, the bombings at Pearly Harbour, to becoming a US State.  In that time she grows up, and learns to live and love despite the odds.  A lot of it is heartbreaking – I cannot recall how many times I cried – but a lot of it is also beautiful or silly or sexy or thrilling.

This is a book about life, not death.  So think of it, instead, as the life and times of a talented young surfer named Rachel.  I am certain there was a girl like her on Moloka’i – she’d be about my age now, plus or minus a century – and she deserves to be remembered.

Bottom line?  I loved this absolutely book.  Although written by a haole (and been reviewed by a haole) I think most Hawaiians would agree that Alan Brennert perfectly captures the aloha spirit.

And, in case this review left you wondering, here’s a Hawaii Five-O gif to describe my feelings for this book: