Book Review – Moloka’i

A Review by Catherine H. Armstrong

Leprosy. Today we know it as Hansen’s Disease and we have a cure.  But even today, just that single word brings fear a vivid image of disfigurement, shame and mass contagion.  The disease does not discriminate and finds its home in the both the rich and the poor; and those afflicted have been historically shunned by society, and even close family.  Moloka’i is the story of a young girl and her lifelong struggle with the disease that ripped her from her family and all she knew.

In the late 1800s, Rachel Kalama is arrested on suspicion of having leprosy and is transported to the infamous Island of Moloka’i in Hawaii, a detainment colony for leprosy victims.  Ripped from the arms of her beloved family and all she knows at the tender age of about 6, Rachel will spend the remainder of her 70-odd years in Moloka’i’s leprosy colony.  The family who once loved and supported her will be gone to her forever, and she will learn to make a new life on this island surrounded by varying degrees of illness caused by this most debilitating disease.  The only light at the end of her tunnel is that her favorite uncle has also been removed to this colony.

I hesitate to say that I “enjoyed” this book, because how can one possibly “enjoy” what is effectively the suffering of others? With that said, I will leave it at “I liked it.”  The voice of the main character, Rachel, was heartbreaking and gave a a glimpse into the life of a child – and eventually a grown woman – who was stolen from the bosom of her family for reasons that she’s too young to understand.

What a heartbreaking journey! To see the fear and confusion of a child as she’s ripped from the arms of her family and sent away to a place where sickness surrounds her.  She’s even denied the ability to have any real relationship with her beloved uncle, who has also been sent to Moloka’i.

Moloka’i is the story of a woman’s journey through childhood, adolescence and into adulthood, and the difficulties her disease presents in living out any real semblance of a “normal” life as the rest of the free world understands it.

This books spans the lifetime of Rachel from approximately age 5 through her death at about age 70. It’s a story about ignorance, prejudice, misunderstandings and fear. And yet, it’s also a story about love and the true meaning of ‘Ohana – Family.   Overall, a really great read.


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