The second book I read in Hawaii was Molakai by Alan Brennert. One of my former students who lives in Honolulu, Matthew Jang recommended it to me when we visited with his family our first week here. He said the book was assigned reading in one of his English classes and it was the best book he’d ever had to read for school.
Molakai is the Hawaiian island where more than 8000 people with leprosy were sent into exile between 1865 and 1969. In Brennert’s novel a little girl named Rachel is sent to Molakai, separated from her family and parents when she is just seven years old. Thankfully by the time she gets there in the 1890’s some order and decency has come to the place, due at least in part to the efforts of a Catholic priest Father Damien from Belgium. He lived on Molokai for sixteen years bringing many reforms until he eventually died of leprosy himself.
In James Michener’s book Hawaii which I wrote about yesterday, a Chinese couple is exiled to the island before Father Damien has arrived and the conditions are inhumane. There is no law, no medical help, no government and terror reigns.
Father Damien has died by the time little Rachel arrives on the island, but plenty of residents remember him and author Brennert does not describe him as a saint. He got very angry when the Hawaiian people did the hula and practiced other rituals of their traditional religion. At the bedsides of dying leprosy patients who weren’t Christians, Father Damien did his best to convince them to convert in their last minutes on earth by describing in graphic detail the horrors of hell.
Rachel grows up on Molokai in a girls’ home run by Catholic sisters. Eventually she marries a Japanese young man and they have a little girl, who they are forced to give up for adoption since babies who are leprosy free cannot stay on the island. Rachel is finally cured and allowed to leave the island and begins the search to find her daughter who by now has married and has children of her own. Rachel is not sure her daughter will even want anything to do with her.
Brennert did meticulous research for his book and although some of his characters are fictional, many real people who lived on Molokai as well as those who visited it appear in the book, like authors Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London. The book was very emotional to read and I highly recommend it.
What next? I’d like to watch the movie about Father Damien, read the magazine articles Stevenson and London wrote about Molokai and visit the island myself perhaps on our next trip to Hawaii.