Moloka’i is a juxtaposition of amazing beauty and incredible ugliness. It’s set in Hawaii, which, if you’ve ever been there, or if you have seen photos or postcards of Hawaii, you know is a truly beautiful place. Lovely beaches, wonderfully warm weather, lots of those big, colorful, flowers that everyone likes so much. It’s a paradise!
The ugliness appears in regards to the disease of leprosy. Obviously, people who are suffering from leprosy become horribly disfigured, in ways that can be disturbing to see. The true ugliness in this story, however, appears when some of the physically healthy characters discover that someone among them is a leper.
This book takes place mostly between 1891 and somewhere around 1930. Not much information was known about leprosy back then. People believed that leprosy was extremely contagious, and could be spread simply by being nearby someone who had it. Leprosy is also called Hansen’s Disease.
Due to this belief, people who had leprosy were basically deported to leper colonies, despite their status as citizens of the United States. They had to leave their families behind, and were never allowed to see them again.
Many of the leper colonies were set up by the government of the United States, which supplied at least some funding to keep things running. In some cases, the Catholic church sent priests and nuns to stay in the leper colonies, where they worked at the hospitals, and ran the orphanages. (And, of course, encouraged the people in their care to become Catholic.)
Despite this, some leper colonies, (especially the earliest ones), were little more than a location to send people where it would be impossible for them to come in contact with the general, healthy, population, as a way of preventing spread of the disease. It wasn’t really a place where people with this disease could get help. It’s very sad to read about.
While this book, and most (if not all) the characters in it are a work of fiction, it is based largely upon facts the author was able to gather about the leper colonies that actually existed. In particular, this book is about the leper colony that was located in Kalaupapa, on the Hawaiian island of Moloka’i.
The book follows the life of the main character, Rachel Kalama, who starts out as a very young child. She lives with her mother, who is Christian, her father, who is somewhat Christian and somewhat a believer in the Hawaiian Gods, and her sister and brothers, who are a bit of both. She adores her father, who is gone a lot, because he is a sailor. She delights in the dolls he brings her from the exotic places he travels to. Rachel has an aunt, uncle, and cousins who also live in the same small town. For the most part, she is a happy child, and blissfully oblivious to what is happening to some of the people around them.
Quite a few people in the town are discovered to have leprosy. It was something that people tried to hide, until the disease progressed into something that was obvious for everyone to see. This was done not just because of the fear of being sent away, but also because of the social stigma people assigned to leprosy.
If you had leprosy, no one wanted to be around you, because they were terrified of becoming a leper themselves. In addition, people would stop associating with all of the members of your family, concerned that they could somehow catch leprosy from them as well.
People believed that the only reason someone got leprosy was because they were a bad person, who must have done something terrible and sinful. I read a book review somewhere that compared they way leprosy was viewed in this book with the way AIDS was viewed in the 1980’s. No one got deported from the United States because they had AIDS (as far as I know) but, I remember the fear that many people had because they were ignorant about how AIDS could, and could not, be passed to someone else.
There are people today who still have the ridiculous belief that people who have AIDS deserve to have it, because of something bad they must have done. Fortunately, educational efforts are working to correct these misconceptions about AIDS. In the time this book takes place in, nothing was done to educate people about leprosy. No one really knew much about it at the time.
Eventually, people discover that Rachel’s uncle has leprosy. From her perspective, her favorite uncle has disappeared, and no one will tell her where he went, or when he will return. She doesn’t notice people shunning her mother, and doesn’t understand why her family doesn’t spend time with her aunt anymore.
It isn’t too much longer after this that Rachel’s mother notices a strange spot on Rachel’s leg, and realizes to her complete horror that her little girl is a leper. Efforts are made to hide it, but, eventually it gets discovered, and Rachel gets deported.
This particular scene is heartbreaking, as readers watch a little girl forcibly removed from her family, and herded down the dock with strangers (most of whom are adults) who are being yelled at and spit on by the crowd. They get packed into a large cage on the boat that is used to hold cattle.
Things don’t immediately improve once Rachel arrives at Kalaupapa, and this once happy little girl become withdrawn and depressed. She is terrified by the disfigured people around her, both because of how they look, and because she realizes that the same fate awaits her.
From there, the book is a chronicle of Rachel’s life as she grows up, makes friends, finds family, and even gets married. Its the tale of how she survived, and found a way to have a life, despite her disease. Some of her adventures are inspiring, and others are tragic. The characters she becomes involved with are each unique, and interesting.
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