When white settlers came to Hawai’i they brought leprosy. Now named Hansen’s Disease, at the time of Moloka’i a person found to be suffering from it was shipped out to a separate colony and pronounced legally dead. Rachel Kalama, a bright young girl with a dream of visiting far off lands, finds a little mark on her foot that tears her world apart.
From that summary you might think Moloka’i is a sad book, but nothing could be further from the truth. Though Rachel faces struggles beyond her young years she sees everything in her life with a brightness that never dulls. She is smart, adventurous, and loyal. Though her body took her away from the dreams she once had she never once loses the hope that pushes her along.
At the turn of the last century the world was in turmoil. The old ways were dying, replaced by industrialisation and the first twitches of globalisation. World-changing events happened over and again, each sending the status-quo into a tailspin. Rachel watches all of it happen from the colony on Moloka’i and as the waves of those events lap at the shore, she finds comfort and safety in the friends she makes around her.
Though there is tragedy in Rachel’s life, and though each even scars her in its own way, she never gives up. She fights with the conception that people with her disease are untouchable; she believes that she will never find love because of it. As the disease takes her friends but spares her year after year she carries the weight of their lost lives on her shoulders but doesn’t let it hold her back. There are few books that had me admiring the strength of a character without finding them obnoxious, but Rachel Kalama has quickly found her place on my ‘favourites’ shelf.
That said, this is a book to share. Like a meal rich with treasures and tastes, Moloka’i needs company to be truly finished. The moment I closed the book I passed it to another friend and I do not regret it. The book was a beautiful read, full of lushious imagery contrasted against tragedy and hope, and the best thing I could think of to honour Rachel was to offer a little happiness to someone else.