Moloka’i by Alan Brennert

Title/Author: Moloka’i by Alan Brennert
Publisher: St Martin’s Griffin
Pages: 383
ISBN: 978-0-312-30435-5

In a nutshell
This novel is set in the 18t90’s to 1970’s. The female protagonist, Rachel Kalama grew up in Honolulu and is part of a big Hawaiian family. Her father, was a merchant seaman and she dreamt that she’d travel to places her dad had visited. However, at the age of 7, her dreams shattered as they discovered she had leprosy, ma’i pake and was sent off to Kalaupapa, the isolated leper colony on the island of Moloka’i, because the disease was believed to be contagious. As the disease reached epidemic proportions, the government felt isolation was the best and only solution.

There, Rachel found a new family – Healer, Haleola who became her adopted ‘auntie’, Sister Mary Catherine Voorhies, one of the many Franciscan sisters who cared for the young girls at Kalaupapa and Leilani who taught her love.

What I liked
Kudos to Brennert for successfully documenting 5 decades of Rachel’s story and those who suffered the pain of being a leper. A great topic chosen indeed. Overall, Moloka’i covered a little bit of everything. The focus is on the sufferings of the people in Moloka’i and how they grew as a community then subsequently as a family.

I liked the settings and atmosphere set in Hawaii. One can’t deny the charms of that place – its beautiful landscape and people. And being able to escape into that magical island while reading the book is truly the cheapest getaway ever.
I enjoyed reading the author’s note too. Although this novel was a work of fiction, it was set in a real place where real people lived and died. The author interweaved real life patients and caregivers with his fictional cast of characters, hence blurring the lines between fact and fiction. Reading this section, the reader will discover fact from fiction and will be more appreciative of their part of the story.

What I didn’t like
Honestly, despite the rave reviews, I didn’t quite enjoy Moloka’i. I think the author was trying to cover as much as possible, wanting to document more than narrate the story. The beginning looked promising; watching the curtains unveilling the life of Rachel and her family in Hawaii. But as the story progressed, events ‘skipped’ from one to another, point of views changed from one person to another, true deep emotions barely delved into.

The attempt of telling the story from various characters’ point of views didn’t quite work for me in this story. It didn’t add any weight nor impact. I think in the attempt of trying to do a lot, the author did too little, leaving many characters ‘weak’ and storyline bare, in that it ‘sweeps’ through from one decade to another, so gently like the breeze, that it hardly rustled any leaves. There were also many different point of views which did help (a teeny weeny bit) intensify the story, but not enough. I did though, appreciate the relationship between Rachel, her dad and husband.

I’ve read authors who did much better at using different point of views (one of them is Kathryn Stockett who wrote The Help. Will review this soon). This would’ve been a much better read if it was written somewhat like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks; lots of facts and details yet still made a very compelling story.
In its entirety, Moloka’i neither swept me off my feet nor left me intrigued as Henrietta Lacks did. That story made me google, youtube, read all other resources about the issue. It is that kind of impact that would make a story, be it historical fiction or autobiography, serve its purpose.
It’d be helpful too if there were some references at the back of the book to help the reader remember some of the Hawaiian terms used earlier in the story.
My verdict? 2.7 / 5 (Doubt I’d be reading Honolulu)
These were some of my favourite quotes from Moloka’i:
“God didn’t give man wings; He gave him the brain and the spirit to give himself wings. Just as He gave us the capacity to laugh when we hurt, or to struggle on when we feel like giving up. I’ve come to believe that how we choose to live with pain, or injustice, or death…is the true measure of Divine within us.”
“Fear is good. In the right degree it prevents us from making fools of ourselves. But in the wrong measure it prevents us from fully living. Fear is our boon companion but never our master.”

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