The longer I wait to write a book review, the more daunting it seems. And that's silly, because it's not like this is a school assignment; it's just something I do for fun and to keep track of my reading. But it's been about a month since I finished Moloka'i and I find myself almost intimidated at the prospect of writing about it, especially since I've long since returned the novel to the library and therefore can't verify spelling for the Hawaiian names and words...but here goes:

Rachel Kalama was only six and living with her family in 1890s Honolulu when she contracted leprosy, now known as Hansen's disease. At that time, the disease was gaining in prevalence, especially among native Hawaiians, and little was known about how it was spread. Rachel's beloved uncle had already been taken from his family and sent to the colony at Kalaupapa, where authorities were trying to isolate the disease and everyone in Hawaii who'd contracted it. Rachel's mother tried to hide her daughter's symptoms, but when the truth was discovered, she was taken away from her family, first to spend months at a hospital and then sent to Kalaupapa, where the ill were expected to remain for the rest of their lives. And while it seemed to then-seven-year-old Rachel like a death sentence, it was in fact the beginning of a new life.

While this story of life on Kalaupapa was often very sad, it was also beautiful and fascinating. The author balanced the experience of daily life for Rachel and her friends and family with the broader context of changes in the outside world. Modern conveniences came only slowly to the island, and it was fascinating to see them through Rachel's eyes. After reading a description of the first time she encountered a phonograph, I said to my husband, "You know, when you explain how a record works, it really does sound pretty unlikely." It was also interesting to see historical events from her perspective.

All in all, I loved reading Moloka'i, no matter how many times it made me cry. I'll admit I thought at first that the descriptions of disease and its symptoms would squick me, but that really wasn't the case. Yes, it had very painful and unpleasant effects, but it wasn't at all like the stereotypical and oversimplified descriptions you hear of limbs falling off (I did know beforehand that wasn't accurate, but I didn't know much about what was). And while the disease was obviously an important element of the book, it was really about the people and how they made new lives and families on Moloka'i.


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