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Moloka'i (Brennert) - Book Reviews

Book Reviews 
Jin's story is prototypical, the bildungsroman of an aspiring woman, yearning for a life beyond the one society has prescribed. (Jin Eyre, anyone?) But in mooring this familiar character to the unique history of early-20th-century Hawaii, Brennert portrays the Aloha State's history as complicated and dynamic—not simply a melting pot, but a Hawaiian-style "mixed plate" in which, as Jin sagely notes, "many different tastes share the plate, but none of them loses its individual flavor, and together they make up a uniquely 'local' cuisine."
Krista Walton - Washington Post


Alan Brennert draws on historical accounts of Kalaupapa and weaves in traditional Hawaiian stories and customs.... Moloka'i is the story of people who had much taken from them but also gained an unexpected new family and community in the process.
Chicago Tribune


An absorbing novel...Brennert evokes the evolution of—and hardships on—Moloka'i in engaging prose that conveys a strong sense of place.
National Geographic Traveler


Compellingly original in its conceit, Brennert's sweeping debut novel tracks the grim struggle of a Hawaiian woman who contracts leprosy as a child in Honolulu during the 1890s and is deported to the island of Moloka'i, where she grows to adulthood at the quarantined settlement of Kalaupapa. Rachel Kalama is the plucky, seven-year-old heroine whose family is devastated when first her uncle Pono and then she develop leprous sores and are quarantined with the disease. While Rachel's symptoms remain mild during her youth, she watches others her age dying from the disease in near total isolation from family and friends. Rachel finds happiness when she meets Kenji Utagawa, a fellow leprosy victim whose illness brings shame on his Japanese family. After a tender courtship, Rachel and Kenji marry and have a daughter, but the birth of their healthy baby brings as much grief as joy, when they must give her up for adoption to prevent infection. The couple cope with the loss of their daughter and settle into a productive working life until Kenji tries to stop a quarantined U.S. soldier from beating up his girlfriend and is tragically killed in the subsequent fight. The poignant concluding chapters portray Rachel's final years after sulfa drugs are discovered as a cure, leaving her free to abandon Moloka'i and seek out her family and daughter. Brennert's compassion makes Rachel a memorable character, and his smooth storytelling vividly brings early 20th-century Hawaii to life. Leprosy may seem a macabre subject, but Brennert transforms the material into a touching, lovely account of a woman's journey as she rises above the limitations of a devastating illness.
Publishers Weekly


A gritty story of love and survival in a Hawaiian leper colony: more a portrait of old Hawaii than a compelling narrative. The chronicle of leprosy-infected Rachel Kalama begins in 1891 in Honolulu and ends in the late 1960s on isolated Moloka’i, site of the Kalaupapa Leprosy settlement. As much a record of her life as of the changes in Hawaii itself over the years, screenwriter and fantasy author Brennert (Her Pilgrim Soul, 1990, etc.) vividly and graphically details both the landscape and the disease as he tells Rachel’s story. She’s five at the start, when her father, a sailor, comes back in time for Christmas with another doll for her collection and gifts for her older siblings Sarah, Ben, and Kimo. A few months later, Rachel is found to have leprosy, and the happy life the family has enjoyed ends. Considered dangerously contagious, Rachel is sent to the settlement on Molaka’i. There, in a hospital run by Catholic nuns, she lives with other young girls affected in varying degrees. As the years pass, Rachel’s friends die; she befriends Sister Catherine, whose affection will sustain her; but, with the exception of her father, she has no contact with her family. Poor Rachel is doomed not only to suffer horribly but also to bear witness to history: a history that includes the end of the monarchy, the US annexation, the arrival of movies and airplanes, the Depression, and Pearl Harbor. Brennert also details changes in the treatment of leprosy—herbal injections, surgery, and, finally, the cure in the 1940’s: sulfa derivatives. While Hawaii changes, Rachel grows up, falls in love, and marries Kenji, a fellow patient. She bears a daughter, but Ruth must immediately give the child up foradoption to avoid infection. Amid the heartbreak, Kenji is murdered and Rachel’s symptoms worsen (she loses the fingers of her right hand). Rachel, though, is a survivor, and unexpected reunions compensate as she returns to a much-changed Honolulu. Not a comfortable read, but certainly instructive.
Kirkus Reviews




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