Posted by: istop4books | August 29, 2011

MOLOKA’I by Alan Brennert

My Aunt Viola, born about the same time as Rachel in 1891,  used to tell me that, “if life give you lemons, make lemonade dearie.”  In my 54 years life has thrown me a lemon or two, a challenge here and there and a couple of heartbreaks – but never leprosy.  Rachel, at age 7 was thrown a boatload of lemons when she was diagnosed with the dreaded, awful-in-biblical proportions disease of Leprosy

Alan Brennert has written an epic story of the history of Moloka’i, the leper colony/island designated by the officials as the place where lepers would go to live and ultimately die, in quarantine, away from society, family and friends.  Told through the eyes of Rachel , a happy, friendly little 7 year old girl who has the misfortune of getting the disease, she is yanked, literally yanked, from the arms of her parents to go live on an island in an institution with a bunch of nuns.  She’s not alone as the island is a virtual prison for all Hawaiians who have succumbed to this nightmare, which from the late 1800’s that the book begins until mid century, was misunderstood, mistreated and untreatable.    It carried with it a stigma of dirtiness, shame, contagion, ignorance.  Brennert expertly weaves in the history of the island, the introduction of aviation, modern medicine, electricity and plumbing, as well as advances in medicine and treatments – with the passage of time of the inhabitants of the colony.  His research into the subject was extensive, and he treats parts which under someone else’s pen would have become a sappy mess, with integrity, honesty and gripping emotions without becoming emotional.

The ramifications of leprosy are chronicled through the stories of the families left behind in Honolulu or some of the other islands, who must hide, change their names, grieve for their losses quietly – lest someone at a school or at a workplace find out and cause a healthy relative of a leper to get fired or be asked to leave or be shunned.  For Japanese immigrants the double whammy consisted in their personal shame and desire to obliterate all memory of the family member who contracted the disease.

 Not to give the wrong impression and back to my lemonade analogy or metaphor or whatever the hell it is – people on the island made lemonade by the bucketful.  Their sickness, lack of health, heck – lack of limbs and deformities – did not define them.  They struggled to maintain some semblance of ordinary life in the face of truly extraordinary circumstances. They became each other’s support system, the family they no longer had – not without missing and yearning for the life they had, but certainly making the best of what horrific odds life had given them.  It IS a book full of hope, of spiritualism, of kindness and good karma. It’s a book that makes you think, that connects you to Rachel and makes you feel for her.  I’m not a crier – I might be hormonal, but I’m no crier – and this one had me tearing up several times. 

The author follows Rachel, who is one of the lucky ones with a slow-developing form of the disease, through adolescence and into marriage, the many friends and relationships she makes and loses on the island and through her we see the evolution of the island, the effects of WWII, the progression of medicine. 

Before I finished the book, I took a look at youtube looking for references to Moloka’i and leprosy.  I wanted to see what was real – and I saw on youtube exactly what Brennert described – an island of hope and tragedy, of sorrow and loneliness, an illness which devastates and people who deal with it with serenity, grace and hope.



  1. […] MOLOKA’I by Alan Brennert ( […]

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