Tuesday, August 12, 2014

"Moloka'i" by Alan Brennert

This is probably the most diverse book I'll read this year. Of course, if another book comes along that celebrates two cultures, and has more than the one gay (but almost transgender) character this novel offers, I'll gladly change my introductory paragraphs. But as far as my pile goes, I believe this is the pinnacle of the culturally diverse ones.

Leprosy is now known as Hansen's disease, but in 1891 (the start of this book), the disease was without cure and incredibly difficult to treat. Lepers were shunned because it wasn't known how the disease spread, and it was feared if the lepers weren't quarantined, pretty much everyone would have it. It's now known that 95% of people are immune to it, and armadillos can be carriers of it, so even if you had no contact from humans carrying the disease, you could get it from an armadillo.

The Plot:
Seven year old Rachel Kalama is your average little girl who happens to live in Honolulu, Hawaii, until one day a pinkish blemish appears on her skin. Her mother Dorothy orders her to wear long sleeves and shoes to school afterward, but word of Rachel's condition eventually slips out of her sister's mouth. She is quarantined at a medical facility nearby for a year, but then sent to a more permanent quarantine on the island of Moloka'i. Will she ever again know freedom?

This novel spans from 1891-1970, which is a period of great change technologically and culturally. While this novel does show some historical detail by showing what people are amazed over, sometimes it doesn't feel quite period. For example, a tiny spoiler: teen girls raised by nuns go to a party, but have to strip to get past a guard. Now, I realize islanders may not be as strict with modesty, but the girls were raised by nuns, and the year is 1904- modesty was still very much in. I really doubt all of them would feel comfortable stripping in front of an unknown guard just to get to a party. There is also very little mention of what I would assume to be period clothes- I understand that Moloka'i is a microcosm and supposed to be somewhat godless (the author mentions a basic idea of free love and 'loose morals', etc.), but to a woman, clothes would be relatively important, and there is only one scene where fashion is discussed. I realize not everyone would want that from a book, but I like hearing about those details in my historical fiction books.

A great portion of this book really gives you a feel of the Hawaiian culture and mythology, which is appreciated because of my lack of experience with either subject. Later on in the book, we're introduced to some aspects of Japanese culture, but it doesn't become the focus. I didn't known Hawaiians believed in a third sex (much like I've heard about in India), until I read this book. Not a lot of historical books would choose to include a cross-dressing gay character without said character seeming out of place, but the author makes the character seem part of the Moloka'i world in a way that doesn't jar.

This book has a lot of plot twists and difficult decisions, but it didn't feel like the author decided each twist with one page's notice. The surprises are integrated and realistic, and never feel out of place in the book. Some of them almost made me cry for the characters, something I rarely do.

Moloka'i more than fulfilled my expectations of it, giving me characters to root for as well as picturesque settings to satisfy my curiosity of the islands. With broad themes that range from what it means to be free to adoption to a life well lived, this book is truly a standout in the historical fiction category and worth the hype. If you're looking for a culturally diverse historical fiction, Moloka'i may be your next read.

Rating: 4.5 of 5 Stars for a well-written novel about the elusiveness of freedom.

Content: Sexual situations, violence, and harsh discrimination. Ages 18+.

Page Count: 384 pages in the Target Bookclub edition


  1. I have read this one, too! I was wondering if this was the book about Hawai'i you referenced. There is another one by him entitled Honolulu but I haven't read it.

    1. Yeah, I'm currently looking for that one because I liked this one so well, but it was pure chance I came across this one on my trip to Montana. I'll have to look for Honolulu in some of the dinky bookstores here in Idaho (Montana has the most bookstores per capita of all the States).
      ~Litha Nelle


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