Moloka’i is based in fact and tells the story of a leper colony called Kalaupapa established on the Hawaiian island of Moloka’i in 1873. More specifically, it focuses on the fictional story of a single resident: Rachel, who was torn away from her loving family and exiled to the remote island village when she was only seven years old. The book opens in 1891, and its first pages give you a picture of Rachel’s life as a normal, active, happy five-year old living in Honolulu with her parents and three siblings. Everything changes when her mother notices a red sore on the back of Rachel’s thigh that is insensitive to pain. Guessing what it is and knowing the consequences, Rachel’s mother tries to keep it a secret as long as she can. When another spot appears on her foot and her mother tries to cover it up by making her wear shoes (unheard of at their school!), her classmates’ teasing leads to Rachel’s secret getting out.
Since it is an almost 400-page book, it gives nothing away to tell you that Rachel lives a fairly long and interesting life with many unexpected twists and turns. Rachel herself is an immediately likable and compelling character who pulled me right into the story. I also loved the backdrop of Hawaiian culture and language. In addition, I found the historical context fascinating. Leprosy was surrounded by an aura of fear and prejudice which was, while somewhat understandable, horrifying. To exile people from their families like that for their entire lifetimes – even taking young children away – is unthinkable now, but it really happened (the mandatory exile only ended in 1969).
I was so taken by this story that I wanted to learn more about the history of leprosy and of Kalaupapa in particular. This wikipedia page gives some historical background on Kalaupapa, plus the photo (which I included here) of the settlement and the towering cliffs that made it naturally isolated. This site is a memorial to some of the resilient people who lived their lives in Kalaupapa and includes some photos. Leprosy is now known as Hansen’s Disease and is caused by a particularly tenacious bacterium. Though the bacteria were discovered as the cause way back in 1873, no one knew how to treat it back then; it is now treated with a variety of antibiotics, though there is still no cure.
All in all, Moloka’i is a captivating and engaging read. Rachel’s story stole my heart and held my attention; she now feels like an old friend. Though the plot description may sound as though it is a depressing book, Rachel’s positive attitude toward life (and that of many of her fellow Kalaupapa residents) lends the story an overall feeling of hope and overcoming the odds to find happiness. It is a remarkable book and highly recommended, especially for book groups.