For nearly every mother, there is one horror worse than any other: the loss of a child. It’s not even something we want to think about, much less something we want to discuss. For me, the simple idea of losing my daughter is so terrifying that just the thought sends my blood pressure skyrocketing.
For that reason (among others) Moloka’i by Alan Brennert is a pretty tough book to read. The books comes out hitting hard right at the beginning when seven-year-old Rachel Kalama is taken from her mother (and family) and sent to live in a leprosy colony. It’s an event that eventually rips Rachel’s family apart, but the story isn’t about Rachel’s family.
It’s about Rachel herself, living in Hawaii during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Molokai story follows Rachel throughout her life, as she grows from a scared young girl on her own the world to a strong adult woman who is capable of caring for herself. In the end, Rachel becomes a woman I’d like to know, which is impressive when you consider that she never saw her mother again after she was seven years old.
The book begins rather slowly as Brennert establishes the parameters of Rachel’s new life, but once she begins to get older things really start to move along. Rachel is living her life with relatively mild leprosy and, in some ways, is able to continue a lifestyle similar to that of other teenagers her age. She can surf, she lusts after boys, and she is physically capable of just about anything. Before long, the book moves into later phases of Rachel’s life, where she gets married to a man living in the leprosy colony and has a baby of her own.
And once again, the cycle of loss begins, as Rachel is forced to give up her own baby to prevent the baby from contracting the leprosy disease.
It all sounds horribly depressing, but it’s really just the opposite. As the end of the story nears, the uplifting and inspiring quality of Brennert’s writing is revealed, and the reader has an epiphany.
Moloka’i isn’t a book about loss and opportunities missed. It’s not about life’s challenges or the fascinating history of leprosy colonies in Hawaii.
Moloka’i is a story about unconditional love, and with an awesome heroine like Rachel Kalama, it’s really difficult not to have a lot of feelings.
Truthfully, not all of them are positive, but that’s part of the beauty of this book. I’ve often heard that true art must provoke SOME kind of emotion, and Moloka’i definitely brings forth a LOT of different feelings. This is a really emotional book that challenges the way we think about motherhood and about unconditional love, and despite some difficult sections, it is definitely worth the read.
I’ve not read Brennert’s other book, Honolulu, but you can apparently purcahse both Hawaii books in an ebook set for less than the price of the individual books. I’ve linked to it below.