3.5 stars really. Moloka'i is the story of how bad life can really be. Rachel Kalama has leprosy and we follow her life as she lives with the biblical stigma in exile on the island of Moloka'i.
Rachel is really a lovable protagonist. We meet her at the age of 7 and as her world begins to fall apart, we can't help but empathize with her, to want to console her and become children again ourselves through her eyes. As she develops into a young woman, she becomes something much more - a capable and daring individual, who refuses to let her disease prevent her from living or from killing her dreams of travel, which she keeps alive vicariously through her father's experiences as a sailor. And how can we not love the old woman she becomes? Giving, loving, determined to right not just the wrongs imposed upon her by white doctors and superstitious Hawaiians, and a keeper of a dying tradition. The woman exiled by her people becomes the protector of her culture, not immune, but resistant to the changes imposed upon them as Hawaii is incorporated into the American way of life.
And how can you not love her father, Henry Kalama, as he Roaming around the world, making his living on steamliners, but keeping his daughter, forgotten and forsaken by everyone else in the world, close to his heart? Or any of the wonderful people that reach out to and protect and befriend Rachel in her living prison?
Ultimately, Moloka'i tells the story of persecution on many levels. It touches on the historical ordeals of those unfortunate enough to contract Hansen's disease. It speaks of the racism and arrogance of American business men and missionaries who asserted their dominance through force and co-opted Hawaiian land and lives. It explores anti-Japanese sentiment and how a family dealt with it during WWII. But in the end, Moloka'i forces you to consider the definition of a good life - and Rachel's, perhaps because it is cast in the land of the dead and dying, is brought into exceptionally high relief. Would that we could all live half the life she had in spite of her fate.
I realize I may be a tad biased in this... Moloka'i reminds me very vividly of my grandma, who grew up less than a generation after Rachel in these very same places and I can't help but imagine her life, experiencing the same momentous historical and technological changes. I can't help imagining O'ahu and Kaua'i and Maui. Brennert does a fantastic job bringing these places back to life and describing them in ways that appeal to people who've visited the islands, but I wonder if his small touches (one might even call it fanservice) appeals to people who've never been.
There was also a section toward the middle where I began to feel like Brennert was visiting tragedy upon tragedy on Rachel for the sake of continuing a cycle of pity, each more outrageous than the last for the simple purpose of getting you to empathize with her, which was totally unnecessary - and really, how much more horrible can you make someone's life when you give them leprosy at the age of 7? The answer, according to Brennert, apparently, is: A LOT.
Still, Moloka'i is a compelling biography that brings a tremendous amount of satisfaction. And as I mentioned earlier, I don't think I will ever forget Rachel. She surfs, has a fondness for Jack London, and is fearless in her interactions with any type of authority - especially for an early 20th century woman. I put her on the pedestal beside Elphaba.