You'll love this one...!! A book club & more discussion

Book Group: Book Discussions > June read: Moloka'i ~ discussion led by Janice SPOILERS INSIDE

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message 1: by Janice, Moderator (new)

Janice (JaMaSc) | 23447 comments Our book read this month is Moloka'i by Alan Brennert.

I have a number of discussion questions that I will spread out throughout the month. That way there'll be a few days to devote to each one. The structure will be fairly loose so join in on the conversation at anytime. Nobody is going to grumble, mumble, or complain if you answer the first question when we're on the third question. Who knows. The discussion may form a life of its own without my facilitation.

First question: Let's have a show of hands of who is going to participate. Have you finished the book? If so, what is your initial take on the book? How many stars did you rate it? If you haven't finished the book, where are you in the book and are you enjoying it so far?

(Okay, so that was a series of questions.)

message 2: by Janice, Moderator (new)

Janice (JaMaSc) | 23447 comments I completed the book back in April and really enjoyed it, gave it 4 stars.

A few years back, I went to Moloka'i to attend my nephew's wedding. My sister's family lives on Oahu and my nephew married a girl whose family is from Moloka'i. Her grandfather was our own personal tour guide and he took us to the memorial overlooking Kaluapapa. It looks so tranquil, although we know that in that past, it was anything but tranquil.

This book was true to the history of Hansen's Disease I like my historical fiction accurate, and Alan Brennert delivered.

Here's a picture to inspire you:


message 3: by Kate (new)

Kate Z (kgordon3) | 144 comments Is that picture from the top of the "pali" looking down on the peninsula where Kaluapapa is?

Okay, back to your series of questions:

I finished the book yesterday, started it on Saturday. Initial take is that it was easy to read, I loved the strong, sympathetic female protagonist and I really enjoyed the way that Brennert wove the history of the island with the story of Molokai and also larger themes of God & religion. I gave it 4 stars.

I loved that Brennert gave Rachel what she deserved in the end although I thought that was a bit "hokey". In a kind of way, if, when I die, I've lived a life the way Rachel lived hers I would be happy.

message 4: by Janice, Moderator (new)

Janice (JaMaSc) | 23447 comments Kate wrote: "Is that picture from the top of the "pali" looking down on the peninsula where Kaluapapa is?

Okay, back to your series of questions:

I finished the book yesterday, started it on Saturday. Initia..."

Yes. The only way you can go down to the peninsula is to take a mule ride down the track alongside the cliff. I wasn't sure I was up to a harrowing ride or the mules up to my weight.

message 5: by Kate (new)

Kate Z (kgordon3) | 144 comments There's no harbor there anymore?

message 6: by Janice, Moderator (new)

Janice (JaMaSc) | 23447 comments I believe there is - probably on the other side. There's an airstrip too.

message 7: by Shannon (new)

Shannon (sianin) | 453 comments I will revisit this topic in the fall. I want to read the book and our in person book club will be reading in the fall. I will be working flat out here soon so won't have time to read it before end of June. I do look forward to your discussion though.

message 8: by Jenny, Group Creator - Honorary Moderator (new)

Jenny (notestothemoon) | 846 comments I'm in the process of reading it. On chapter 6. I'm enjoying it. Feeling very naive to the fact that I didn't really know that any of this went on :S

message 9: by Sandy (new)

Sandy H (sandyquiltz) I'm about 15% in (in Kindle terms--I didn't do that math myself!). I'm really loving it. It's the first book in awhile that I've found myself anxious to get back to whenever I've had to put it down. I'm still in Rachel's childhood--I always think it's particularly hard to write children convincingly; they either end up caricatured or overly precocious. In this case, she's extremely believable in her attitudes and behaviors. It's also a piece of history I was unaware of--I'm learning a lot!

message 10: by Cheryl (new)

Cheryl (cherylllr) I've not started yet but hope to do so tomorrow.

message 11: by Judy (new)

Judy (patchworkcat) | 5743 comments I just finished Moloka'i this morning. This is a book I'm glad I read simply because I had no idea what it was like to live with leprosy for the infected person or their kin. How enlightening!

The picture of Kalaupapa is beautiful, Janice, and yes, inspiring. Thank you for posting it. :-)

The book has got me trying to sort out several things. I want to walk away from it and say how cruel it was for the "lepers" to be isolated, but I can't quite do that and it really bugs me!! When I put myself in the shoes of the health officials, do I know that I would do any different about a disease I knew nothing about that could be so devastating? I hope I would treat the family of lepers different as far as not allowing them to work and I would hope my attitude would be different, but honestly with so little knowledge its hard to say how one would react. At the least, its hard to say, but makes for interesting speculation,.....

One last thing, welcome, Sandy, glad you joined and look forward to your input. :-)

message 12: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Vegan (LisaVegan) I think I read it about a month ago. 5 stars from me! I loved it. It made my favorites shelf.

Loved Rachel, the Hawaiian history and the Hawaiian language words woven throughout. Learned a lot about Hansen's Disease and Moloka'i too that I hadn't known before. In addition to Rachel, I also found many of the other characters compelling.

I was inspired to read The Colony: The Harrowing True Story of the Exiles of Molokai to learn even more. It's a non-fiction account. I really enjoyed this book also but much preferred Moloka'i.

message 13: by Janice, Moderator (new)

Janice (JaMaSc) | 23447 comments It looks like we're going to have a great discussion on the book.

The theme this month is "Coming of Age". Do you think this book fits the theme? Why or why not?

I suggested this book because Rachel was forced to grow up under very harsh circumstances. She was diagnosed with a disease that was so feared by people that she was separated from her family and all that she knew. Somehow, she survived and developed into a rather well adjusted adult. I thought her story fell into the theme quite well.

message 14: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Vegan (LisaVegan) It's definitely a coming of age novel, I thought.

message 15: by Linda (new)

Linda Gordon | 5 comments I read the book a few month's ago at Kate's suggestion. After reading all the posted comments, I want/need to re-read.
I am an older person and as such was aware of Leprosy as it was called then and how people were shunned and isolated. I remember reading and hearing about Father Damien also. I think most of us tend to compartmentalize subjects with an "ick" factor; maybe to be dealt with at a later time which is why I enjoyed reading Molokai.
I'm looking forward to the month's discussion.

message 16: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Vegan (LisaVegan) From age nine I was interested in leprosy and after I read this book and was talking about it with a friend she reminded me that our fourth grade teacher's brother (who was a missionary in the Philippines when we were in fourth grade) had worked on Molokai not that long before. So, then I remembered/realized why I even knew about the illness when I was nine.

message 17: by Donna (new)

Donna | 79 comments I read the book quite some time ago with my in-person book group and I gave it 4 stars. This book stuck with me and I've recommended it to a number of people since.

It certainly is a coming-of-age story in addition to being historical fiction. Rachel's life was so difficult even as the treatment of leprosy improved and the stigma was reduced that is was amazing she was a well adjusted adult in the end.

message 18: by Judy (new)

Judy (patchworkcat) | 5743 comments The love, acceptance of Uncle Pono, Haleola and Sister Catherine made such a difference in Rachel's life. That and the unconditional love of her father brought her through the difficult times and helped her reach out in significant ways to others as she aged, IMO.

message 19: by Alison (new)

Alison Forde | 269 comments I enjoyed reading Moloka'i and found the historical and cultural details interesting. Unlike Sandy I didn't find the author's characterisation of Rachel the child particularily believable or engaging and found the adult characters, including Rachel as an adult more convincing. The bok certainly fits the coming of age theme well - Rachel's medical history shapes her entire universe and makes her who she is.

message 20: by Sandy (new)

Sandy H (sandyquiltz) Funny, Alison--I just finished the book this morning and still couldn't engage quite as much with the adult Rachel as much as I could with the child Rachel. I really got a lot out of the book, but I almost felt like adult Rachel was a little too well-adjusted for everything she'd gone through. I'd just like to have seen a little more depth in having her work through some issues; it was evident in her youth, not so much in her adulthood. In terms of it being a "coming of age" novel, I felt that strongly until later in the book. (I feel the need to be careful what I say in terms of distinct breaking points for me since some folks haven't finished it yet!) Some things seemed to get a little glossed over--I'd have liked to seen her have to work through a couple of things a little more to get to where she ended up.

But when you're trying to write the entire life-span of a person, you have to make choices about what you include or it would be a kazillion pages long (!), so I don't sweat that too much. I really liked the relationships he (the author) built, the community he drew on the island, the engagement versus non-engagement of the government, the honest reactions of others even after things were supposedly improving. The book did, for the most part, read as very "real" to me.

It's certainly a part of history I was only vaguely aware of and the novel is one that will stay in my mind. One of my fave reads in a long time.

message 21: by Janice, Moderator (new)

Janice (JaMaSc) | 23447 comments Sandy wrote: "Funny, Alison--I just finished the book this morning and still couldn't engage quite as much with the adult Rachel as much as I could with the child Rachel. I really got a lot out of the book, but ..."

Your comment about the book reading as very "real" to you is the goal of historical fiction. Brennert drew from journals and documents to bring this important history to life.

The community on the peninsula exists in real life. There is a quote from the book that is fitting "... the pali wasn't a headstone and Kalaupapa wasn't a grave. It was a community like any other, bound by ties deeper than most..."


I just read your profile. You're a quilter! Yeah - me too!. :)

message 22: by Jolene (new)

Jolene (SmithJolene) Love the picture Janice. As I was reading the book I wondered what it would be like now and appreciated the author's epilogue to talk about what Moloka'i was like when the book was published.
I finished the book yesterday. I loved the story! I do think that it is a coming of age story and a very unique one because of the circumstances Rachel had to grow up in.
I learned a lot from the book as I did not know anything about it before. The only thing I thought could have been improved is the last part after Rachel leaves. I think the story of those years could have been told better.

message 23: by Janice, Moderator (new)

Janice (JaMaSc) | 23447 comments There is a lull in the conversation, so on to the next question.

Pick a character other than Rachel who had an impact on you. Discuss what it was about that character that affected you. Hopefully, we'll get a good selection of characters.

message 24: by Janice, Moderator (new)

Janice (JaMaSc) | 23447 comments At first, I didn't care for Sister Victor. She seemed quite staid and off-putting. But as her story unfolded, I realized that she suffered terribly from depression.

For whatever reason, she went to Kalaupapa. The peninsula was isolation for the workers as much as it was for those afflicted with Hansen's Disease. For Sister Victor it was a double isolation in that depression is a disease of isolation.

message 25: by Jolene (new)

Jolene (SmithJolene) There were a few for me. I guess I would choose Rachel's father and Sister Catherine! They were both a constant support for Rachel but in different ways. They both taught her a lot and neither of them gave up on her.

message 26: by Judy (new)

Judy (patchworkcat) | 5743 comments First of all, Janice, I like the way you are doing this discussion with the multiple questions. :-)

Like Jolene, I think Rachel's father was awesome. But another exceptional character was the Senator who kept his promises to the islanders and than came back as governor. (Sorry, I can't remember his name and I took the book back to the library already.) I kept thinking, I wish we had some elected officials who kept their promises nowadays!

message 27: by Janice, Moderator (new)

Janice (JaMaSc) | 23447 comments Thanks Judy.

I had forgotten about him. Lawrence McCully Judd. Wikipedia describes him as being devoted to the residents of Kalaupapa.

message 28: by Sandy (new)

Sandy H (sandyquiltz) As others have said, there were a lot of other characters that spoke to me. But overall, I really liked how Sister Catherine was drawn. We saw her through her "adjustment period," for lack of a better term--including how Sister Victor did and didn't affect her; how she had to balance the requirements of her position and the strictures of the institution with what she felt really needed to be done; and the realities of her growing relationship with Rachel, including distrust and fear moving into respect, friendship, and love on both sides. I thought that relationship was one of the strongest written relationships in the book. I also liked Rachel's husband, Kenji; I thought his feelings towards his family, his anger about his disease and the future it denied him moving into acceptance, and his relationship with Rachel all felt quite real.

message 29: by Janice, Moderator (new)

Janice (JaMaSc) | 23447 comments I agree with you about the relationship between Rachel & Sister Catherine. I thought Catherine was a wonderful character. I liked that she was not rigid in her attitudes. She was very accepting of situations that would have been frowned upon by the Catholic Church.

message 30: by Cheryl (last edited Jun 06, 2011 01:15PM) (new)

Cheryl (cherylllr) I finished this morning - I did miss sleep because I couldn't put it down. I'm not accustomed to reading historical fiction, but this seemed like a good example of the genre. And, yes, coming-of-age, too.

I want to respond to a thought earlier - in the early days, when the disease was thought to be the biblical version of leprosy, and the victims did almost always die, exile was an understandable response. Treating them as less than human was not as understandable.

But then, the excuses for camps like Manzanar were so much weaker, and the treatment usually as bad or worse. And think about how recently so many of us treated victims of AIDS with fear, contempt, and lack of compassion.

message 31: by Cheryl (new)

Cheryl (cherylllr) I was especially moved by the character Leilani. I'm not sure exactly why Brennert included her, and I feel that she was drawn just a little too brightly and a little too superficially, but I did like that most of the community grew to at least tolerate her.

Unfortunately it's not always the case that victims of prejudice are more tolerant - human nature makes us tend to dig as deep as need be for someone to shun. I don't know if you know, but a fair percentage of lesbians, for example, are prejudiced against women who are bisexual.

I'm glad Brennert included that character's story.

message 32: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Vegan (LisaVegan) Sister Catherine probably made the biggest impression on me regarding her relationship with Rachel, I felt the character of Leilani was most unique, but the incident with another character than Rachel that stuck with me the most were the lies Rachel's father told her about her siblings; when those were revealed and their reason for being made clear, that was so powerful for me.

message 33: by Sandy (new)

Sandy H (sandyquiltz) Lisa, I also found myself sort of stopped at that part of the book, when Rachel was finding out about her father's lies about her siblings. I found it really interesting that Brennert never really made it clear whether the father actively lied or just didn't actually know what had happened because he was no longer in touch (I believe Rachel's sister either said or thought something along those lines herself), so he made up stories, almost as if to fill in blanks for himself as much as for Rachel. It not only added a layer to my understanding of Rachel as a character, but also to that of her father. It showed how much an experience like this can send shock waves through entire families and communities, rather than just being one person's experience.

message 34: by Kate (new)

Kate Z (kgordon3) | 144 comments Going back to the first question about whether or not this is a coming of age story - I don't think it is. I would classify this novel as more of an "epic" than a coming of age novel. Yes, Rachel grows from a young girl to a mature grandmother in the novel but to be truly defined as a coming of age novel I think that Rachel would have to change in some significant way and I don't think that she really does. She is a very self confident, full of life little girl who does her own thing and that never really changes. She is making up her own soup using her own creativity and independence which is what sets the whole "conflict" in motion and while she's at the detention center on Oahu she is sneaking out and playing in the bay. From the get go she doesn't let the terrible things that happen to her in her life get in the way of her actually living her life. Family is always important to her.

This is *not* a criticism of the book (I really emjoyed it and loved Rachel) but I don't think it's a "coming of age" story.

message 35: by Kate (new)

Kate Z (kgordon3) | 144 comments I loved so many of the secondary characters. I would love to get into the sisters, particularly Sister Catherine, a bit in this discussion. She is so fully fleshed out and she and Rachel become so close - but I wonder why Brennert chose to highlight her (including her friendship with Sister Victor, her parents, her trip to see her famil, etc) and not do something similar for "Papa". Is Sister Catherine a kind of "foil" to Rachel? She really doesn't seem like a foil - but she could almost have her own novel.

The other character I wondered about and did not understand was the guy who enslaved Rachel for a couple of days by the crater. I thought for sure that guy would come back later in the novel and cause trouble but, like Rachel's escapade itself, it was merely a detour in the book - a little trail out and then back down to the main road/novel. I found it strange.

message 36: by Alison (new)

Alison Forde | 269 comments Perhaps Brennert included Leilani as an example of how the old ways were warmer and more forginving than the new medicalised world the lepers were subjected to - Leilani point out that there had been a third gender in pre-Christian Hawaii where her trans status would have been more widely accepted.

message 37: by Janice, Moderator (last edited Jun 06, 2011 03:41PM) (new)

Janice (JaMaSc) | 23447 comments Cheryl in CC NV wrote: "I finished this morning - I did miss sleep because I couldn't put it down. I'm not accustomed to reading historical fiction, but this seemed like a good example of the genre. And, yes, coming-of-..."

I'm going to come back later to respond to this... I have to leave in about 15 minutes. I may hold off till another question to respond to this.

message 38: by Janice, Moderator (new)

Janice (JaMaSc) | 23447 comments These are all great points. I too wondered about the abduction in the crater. It would have had no impact on the story if it had been excluded.

Thank you for your perspective on a coming of age story, Kate. I thought of this story being in that capacity because Rachel overcame the hardships of her childhood and her experiences, lessons, heartbreaks, etc. were the buiding blocks of the amazing woman she became.

Does anyone have any feelings about Haleola, Uncle Pono's lover and how she became a surrogate aunt, possibly even mother to Rachel?

What about Uncle Pono, Dorothy Kalama (Rachels' mother), or her sister Sarah?

message 39: by Judy (new)

Judy (patchworkcat) | 5743 comments Sandy wrote: "Lisa, I also found myself sort of stopped at that part of the book, when Rachel was finding out about her father's lies about her siblings. I found it really interesting that Brennert never really ..."

Good points, Sandy. To me it seemed that it fit her father's personality for him to tell her a fairytale. He had such a easy-going, happy personality that he wanted her to have something good in her life since reality had been so cruel to her. This may be way off base, but that is how it struck me. It would be nice if Alan Brennert joined us so we could ask him to comment on it.

message 40: by Sandy (new)

Sandy H (sandyquiltz) You know, Alison--you make a really good point about what Leilani may have symbolized. There was clearly a theme throughout of the former Hawai'i versus the current Hawai'i. Old medicine versus new medicine. Rachel's father versus Rachel's mother. Haleola versus the mother superior, or whatever they called her (she only appeared a few times, but she was the rule-setter). The super-institutionalized leprosy research center symbolizing the best of new medicine but being abandoned when it didn't fit the way human beings really behave.... Huh. Thanks, Alison--I'll be pondering that one for awhile!

message 41: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Vegan (LisaVegan) Sandy wrote: "Lisa, I also found myself sort of stopped at that part of the book, when Rachel was finding out about her father's lies about her siblings...It not only added a layer to my understanding of Rachel as a character, but also to that of her father. It showed how much an experience like this can send shock waves through entire families and communities, rather than just being one person's experience. ..."

I do think he was trying to make things easier on Rachel with his storytelling, and hiding from her what he didn't know, including hiding from her that he was not in touch with his other children.

message 42: by Alan (new)

Alan Brennert | 14 comments Hi everyone, glad to see you're all enjoying the book and I'm impressed by all your thoughtful comments. Sandy, you're exactly right: Henry made up those stories because he couldn't bear to tell Rachel the truth, to burden her with one more sadness. And for at least those moments he could pretend he still had a family other than Rachel.

Leilani came about when I stumbled across mention of that little-known side effect of leprosy on a website of a man who ran leprosy clinics in Thailand and India. Interestingly, he told me that when it happened to men in India there was a double shame, that of having leprosy and of having apparently become a woman (seen as a lower status there). Alison is quite correct, in pre-Christian Hawai'i the role of mahus was fact I even ran across accounts of how some mahus would dress as women and serve as a kind of second wife in a marriage with a man and woman! The acceptance Leilani achieves at Kalaupapa is a testament to the lack of homophobia in old Hawaiian society, and the sense of 'ohana among the people at Kalaupapa.

The theme of old Hawaiian beliefs and culture versus Western values was definitely one that was important to me and, I felt, to the telling of the story.

The encounter with the nasty old guy in the crater I included partly to show that Kalaupapa, being a microcosm of larger society, had both good and bad people living there, and partly as a nod to the old days on the peninsula--the 1870s and 80s--when some stronger patients did virtually enslave children to work for them. By the time Rachel came to Kalauapa those elements had been largely tamed, but I figured if there was any place where it could still happen, it would be remote Kauhako.

If anyone has any other questions I'll try and answer them, but so far you seem to be doing an excellent job of answering them yourselves!

message 43: by Janice, Moderator (new)

Janice (JaMaSc) | 23447 comments Hi Alan! And welcome! I'm so excited that you have joined our discussion and have shed some light on the questions we had about the book.

I didn't realize that younger victims of the disease were targetted and enslaved by some of the older/stronger patients. It makes sense because the early history of Moloka'i and before Father Damien came to the island, patients were basically dumped onto the island to fend for themselves. That type of anarchy was bound to happen.

Speaking of Father Damien. I was intrigued by the interation between him and Haleola (who was one of my most favorite characters). At the time of her husband's death, he appeared to be the stereotypical fire and brimstone, unyielding, Catholic priest. Yet, later when Sister Catherine asked her what he was like, she sang his virtues. I thought it was a dynamic part of the story.

message 44: by Alan (new)

Alan Brennert | 14 comments You bring up a good point, Janice. The first time we meet Father Damien, it's from Haleola's point of view, and she takes an understandably dim view of someone who breaks up a hula ceremony, tears down an altar, then tells her that her husband's going to a hell she doesn't believe in. In their second scene together, though, she starts to see the humanity and compassion in him. In reality, Damien was both things: he was a great man who did great good for the people of Kalaupapa, but he also had no patience with what he saw as "heathen" worship and did promote his own religious agenda. But he never denied food or medicine or help to those who didn't convert to Christianity. To me this is what made him an interesting character to write; I only wish I could have included more of him in the story.

message 45: by Janice, Moderator (new)

Janice (JaMaSc) | 23447 comments Next question:

Was it fair of the nuns to remove Rachel from Uncle Pono's house and bring her to the convent school? Were they within their rights? How do you think things would have been different for Rachel if she was allowed to stay with Uncle Pono?

message 46: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Vegan (LisaVegan) Re the nuns vs. Uncle Pono: I argued like crazy with my book club about this one. Most thought yes: that Rachel would not be safe at her Uncle's, that they could not be with her all the time and she'd be in danger, such as from the man that tried to keep her as a slave.

I thought the convent home shouldn't have taken her.

Now, I'm thinking ideally they'd have built a community with safe(r) family housing. Or, given how things were, the visits shouldn't have been as restricted.

Rachel might actually not have fared as well had things been different. She would not have developed as close a relationship with sister Catherine or had the same closeness she developed with the other girls.

message 47: by Judy (new)

Judy (patchworkcat) | 5743 comments I'm going to play devil's advocate here: {smile}

a) This was a traumatic time in her life, wouldn't it have been better to be with her family? After all, it was her parents wish.
b) Since we can look back and see what happened, it all looks like it worked out for the best, but do we really know things wouldn't have been just as good if she hadn't been ripped away from Pono & Haleola?

The questions above are all in fun, because we wouldn't have had the story if she stayed with her family. Still, its interesting speculation.

message 48: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Vegan (LisaVegan) Well, I was outraged that she wasn't with her family when I was reading it.

And we would have had a story, Judy, just a different story.

But given how much I love the story we got...

message 49: by Judy (new)

Judy (patchworkcat) | 5743 comments Okay, that settles it, we'll just have to write our own Moloka'i II! :-)

message 50: by Janice, Moderator (new)

Janice (JaMaSc) | 23447 comments LOL! Maybe Mokoka'i Revisited?

I was so angry when I read that the nuns were taking Rachel away from her uncle. Here was a child, scared and grieving at being ripped away from her family. Now, she was being ripped away from her uncle. I thought it was beyond unfair. It was cruel.

I railed against the nuns in their righteous attitude, passing judgement on Uncle Pono for living with Haleola and deeming them unsuitable for caring for this child. I will freely admit that some of my own biases were at play here.

I thought that the nuns were overstepping their rights because Rachel's parents had requested that she be under his guardianship. I don't quite remember, but I think the request was in writing. I would have thought this would have taken precedence.

I think, in the long run, Rachel was better off at the convent school. She developed friendships with other children her age. Had she stayed with Uncle Pono, she would have been lonely. She received an education at the school. I'm not sure she would have had the same opportunity at Uncle Pono's. Would she have gone daily to the school?

Lots to speculate about here. :)

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You'll love this one...!! A book club & more

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Books mentioned in this topic

Moloka'i (other topics)
The Colony: The Harrowing True Story of the Exiles of Molokai (other topics)
In the Sanctuary of Outcasts (other topics)
Pilgrimage and Exile: Mother Marianne of Molokai (other topics)
Kahuna La'au Lapa'au: Hawaiian Herbal Medicine (other topics)

Authors mentioned in this topic

Alan Brennert (other topics)