Moloka’i by Alan Brennert – review

Rating: 10/10 ★★★★★★★★★★ Title: Moloka’i
Author: Alan Brennert
Genre: Historical Fiction, Hawaiiana
URL: Amazon
Price: US$11.16
Warnings: None
Summary (from the publisher): 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 on 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.

My Review: After having read the exploitative and shameful “non-fiction” work “The Colony,” by John Tayman, I was a bit leery of Alan Brennert’s “Moloka’i,” a wholly fictional account of the one-time leper colony on the Kalaupapa Peninsula of Moloka’i. I am very glad, however, that I did read Brennert’s amazing novel as it gives a far more accurate portrayal of the time and the place and the people than Tayman’s book ever could.  It is a sweeping piece of historical fiction and an emotional (but never manipulative) journey of seven-year-old Rachel Kalama who, after being diagnosed in the late 1800s, is sent to Kalawao/Kalaupapa, the site on Moloka’i which served as a leper colony from 1866 until 1969.

Unlike Tayman (whose non-fiction account has been decried by scholars and the remaining residents of Kalaupapa themselves), Brennert does not feel the need to sensationalize the historical facts to tell his story. Brennert did his research and was wise enough to know that the story was compelling enough—it didn’t need to be “ratcheted up”—to have an emotional impact upon the reader and to do justice to the thousands who lived and died at Kalawao and Kalaupapa.

While Rachel’s story is fictional, Brennert acknowledges that some of the characters in the novel were loosely based upon people who had actually lived at Kalaupapa. Brennert wisely creates composite characters, taking bits and pieces from the historical records and correspondence of the time.  The result is deeply affecting and rich characters, and a portrait of a people who took the worst of times and lived quiet, dignified lives a world away from their families and friends who seemed to have forgotten them.  One of the pieces I am grateful that Brennert worked in was the presence of the Mahu, the gay Hawaiians who lived and breathed and were likely committed to Kalaupapa.  While at first glance the Mahu character might teeter on stereotype, Brennert creates a very full character that overcomes the stereotypes.

Brennert’s prose is also quiet. Simply, he creates a realism that never dares cross into exoticism of Hawai’i or of its people, but still manages to depict environ most have never experienced.  He captures the idyllic setting and peoples it with human beings full of faults and foibles and courage. We get to see our heroine Rachel grow up, fall in love, marry, as well as grieve the friends (and family) who come and go out of her life throughout the decades. We are given the joys she experiences, as well as the lows, and as we live Rachel’s life right along with her, we feel almost privileged to have met these remarkable people and shared in their indomitable spirit, if only for a brief time.

One of the potential pitfalls for any piece of historical fiction is info-dumping, throwing historical facts in to give the proper perspective. When handled ineptly, passages of books can begin to feel like history lessons forced upon the reader.  For the most part, Brennert avoids this masterfully.  Almost never does any information feel unnecessary or forced, an author showing off his research abilities.  It is all woven beautifully into the prose, amazing considering the historical events depicted: the death of a King, the overthrow of a Monarchy, the advent of radio and electricity, the dawning of statehood, the bombing of a harbor.  It all fits.

If I have any nit-picking to do with respect to this story, it is that, at times, the dialog feels almost too contemporary, more 21st century than late 19th. But this is a minor quibble. In the end, Brennert creates a moving story and one of the most memorable heroines I have ever met, a young girl who blossoms into womanhood and manages to live a remarkable life.

The breadth and beauty of this novel cannot be understated, and the fact that Brennert takes a difficult period of Hawaiian history and the topic of leprosy that some might find horrific and creates a life-affirming story of love and perseverance without ever venturing into maudlin sentimentality is something to be lauded. Memorable characters, memorable lives lived with dignity. I couldn’t ask for more in a piece of historical fiction.