Rachel Kalama, a spirited seven year old Hawaiian girl, dreams of visiting far-off lands like her father, a merchant seaman. Then one day a rose-coloured mark appears on her skin, and her life changes forever. She 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 just beginning.
The book opens with Rachel’s memories of a warm, loving childhood home where she eagerly awaits her father’s return from his months- long voyages abroad. He always has a gift for her, usually a doll from some far off exotic country, and tales which inspire her own travel fantasies. Life is normal for Rachel, school, playing and bickering with her siblings, rare treats from the bakery. Then one day Rachel’s mother discovers a cut on Rachel’s leg, a wound that won’t heal and that Rachel cannot feel. Her mother tries various remedies, she bandages it hoping to conceal it, but it is her sister who will unwittingly change their lives forever.
This book is all that I find wonderful about fiction. It is beautifully written, set in a country and a time that is unfamiliar to me, with an engaging central character you are constantly rooting for. And through this captivating story I learned of the existence of an island called Moloka’I , to which people ,stigmatised with Leprosy (now known as Hansen’s Disease), were shipped, and in effect left to fend for themselves with minimal government aid.
The story is full of wonderfully vivid and individual characters – amongst them, Rachel’s uncle Pono, who preceded her to the island and is the only family she can cling to, his partner Haleola, practical yet deeply spiritual and in touch with nature and tradition, her father who visits sporadically and whose larger than life presence sustains her, and the nuns who are charged with the care of these young girls but who have their own inner struggles and demons.
A novel is by definition a work of fiction, but this particular novel is set in a real place where real people lived and died-people to whom I felt accountable as I tried to tell a story that would also be true to their stories.
So writes Alan Brennert in the author’s note at the end of this book and for me he achieved this.
As well as wanting to know the fictional Rachel’s fate as the story unfolds I also wanted to know more about Hawaii itself and its struggle with the American government. I read the author’s note searching for glimpses of the people these characters might have been based on- these fictional characters who were brought so wonderfully to life in the book and who had been sent to an island to die, yet managed to forge some kind of normal life together in their isolation. I wanted to believe that life on the island for those banished people actually had some of the spirit, hope and humanity of the novel.
At times the novel had echoes of another novel I have read, “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter Sweet” by Jamie Ford” which is set in America during the Second World War and is about Japanese Americans who are rounded up and forced to live in detention camps. I was amazed at how apt this feeling was as the novel nears its end.
This book was recommended to me and I must admit that I put off reading it as I feared it would be a grim read, particularly this year – it turned out to be one of the best, most uplifting books I have read and one I wholeheartedly recommend.