Richard Derus's Reviews > Moloka'i

Moloka'i by Alan Brennert
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Oct 23, 2012

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Read in October, 2012

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Young Rachel Kalama, growing up in idyllic Honolulu in the 1890s, is part of a big, loving Hawaiian family, and dreams of seeing the far-off lands that her father, a merchant seaman, often visits. But at the age of seven, Rachel and her dreams are shattered by the discovery that she has leprosy. Forcibly removed from her family, she is sent to Kalaupapa, the isolated leper colony on the island of Moloka'i.

In her exile she finds a family of friends to replace the family she's lost: a native healer, Haleola, who becomes her adopted "auntie" and makes Rachel aware of the rich culture and mythology of her people; Sister Mary Catherine Voorhies, one of the Franciscan sisters who care for young girls at Kalaupapa; and the beautiful, worldly Leilani, who harbors a surprising secret. At Kalaupapa she also meets the man she will one day marry.

True to historical accounts, Moloka'i is the story of an extraordinary human drama, the full scope and pathos of which has never been told before in fiction. But Rachel's life, though shadowed by disease, isolation, and tragedy, is also one of joy, courage, and dignity. This is a story about life, not death; hope, not despair. It is not about the failings of flesh, but the strength of the human spirit.

My Review: This historical novel is about a time and a place most of us don't pay a lot of attention to. Hawaii is a state now, fifty-three years of statehood, but there are many Hawaiians who don't feel like they're American, only Hawaiian and that's enough for them. The USA might rule over Hawaii, but its contributions to Hawaii's history are recent...not yet 150 years out of over 1,000 of history...and, if there is any justice in this world, ephemeral.

Part of that contribution is told in this angering, awful tale of the injustices once thought unremarkable that were the lot of mixed-race Hawaiians, as well as the pragmatic but inhumane exile of lepers from their lives and families to the island of Moloka'i. Rachel is our heroine, a child taken from home and family because of leprosy. Her life on Molokai, from childhood to death, is full, and rich, and replete with love; it's also terribly heart-breakingly sad, as all lives are, with loss and sacrifice and connections made late, too late, that can never be made what they were meant to be.

Rachel's daughter Ruth, at Rachel's funeral, meditates on what self-sacrifice gave her, and cost her, at the end of the book:

“...I'm lucky, you see: I had two mothers. One gave life to me; one raised me. But they both loved me. You know, some people don't even get that once.

“It took me a while to say the words 'I love you' to my {birth mother}. It was a different kind of love than I felt for my {adoptive mother}, but founded on the same things. … There's only one disadvantge, really, to having two mothers,” Ruth admitted. “You know twice the love...but you grieve twice as much.”
(p382, US hardcover edition)

I had a mother I wasn't fond of, I had a stepmother I was fond of, and I had superlative good fortune in having older female friends who mothered me and supported me in ways my own mother would not have wanted, or been able, to do. I've grieved the various losses as they've happened, and wondered what it would mean to grieve one mother, one time, with one whole and undivided heart.

But it's when I read this passage again that I realize my heart wasn't divided. It was multiplied, many many times, by the gift of so much love and kindness I received from them. So for Jan, and Irene, and Jo, and Nina...all gone but one...I thank you again for helping form who I am. I refer to your examples when I am in doubt. I keep working to be more like each of you in giving more than I'm asked for.

For Alan Brennert, thank you good sir for your ever and always timely reminder that love makes families as much as birth does.

This is obviously a novel that went to the root of my experience in the world, but it's not by any means a perfect novel. It's not hugely beautiful, it's instead heartfelt and deeply experienced. It's sentimental, in a good way, and it's also got a healthy dose of sentimentality in a bad way. But on balance, reading through the pages, my thoughts overruled the rolling of my eyes as I felt my way through the life of Rachel the mixed-race leper. Her world, and her places in it, were evoked fully in Brennert's somewhat heavy prose. Pages did not fly up to meet my fingers, they waited for me to come and turn them with the stolid stodgy heaviness of poi...stickier and heavier than potatoes, not quite adhesive enough to be glue.

So don't go into this read thinking the linguistic arabesques will delight and amaze you in their lightness and nimbleness, and the rich, satisfying prose carving a truthful, worthwhile woodcut of a story will reward you.
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04/07/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-29 of 29) (29 new)

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message 1: by Terry (new)

Terry Great review Richard!


Rebecca Huston Excellent review. This book just broke my heart to read.


Richard Derus Terry wrote: "Great review Richard!"

Thanks, Terry!


Richard Derus Rebecca wrote: "Excellent review. This book just broke my heart to read."

Thank you, Rebecca. I can understand why.


Richard Derus Sam wrote: "Stunning review, Richard!"

You're very kind, Sam, thanks for dropping a compliment my way.


message 6: by [deleted user] (new)

Excellent review!


Richard Derus Jeannie wrote: "Excellent review!"

Thank you, Jeannie!


message 8: by mark (new)

mark monday this was an especially good review Richard. kudos!


Richard Derus mark wrote: "this was an especially good review Richard. kudos!"

Thank you, only-good-monday. Made my humpday to hear that.


message 10: by Michael (new)

Michael Masterful!

If you liked the matriarchal aspects of Hawaian history, you might want to check out Kiana Davenport's Shark Dialogues. Goes between 1830s and 1990s, with a focus on strong women, colonialism, and a moderate chunk of the leper colony. A second one, Song of the Exile, spends quite a bit of time on the Hawaian perspective during WW2, with a focus on the "comfort women" fate of Pacific islanders in Japanese brothels. Both got 5 stars out of me.


Richard Derus Michael wrote: "Masterful!"

Thank you most kindly, Michael.

Michael wrote: "If you liked the matriarchal aspects of Hawaian history, you might want to check out Kiana Davenport's Shark Dialogues. Goes between 1830s and 1990s, with a focus on strong women, colo..."

I'll have to get them via ILL, so it will be a while. Thanks for letting me know about them!


Lance Greenfield That's a really good review, Richard. We are slightly at odds over how great, or not, this book is, but that is healthy. What an appallingly broing world it would be if we all agreed on everything!

Have you read The Island?


message 13: by Mark (new)

Mark Lovely review Richard and, as always, thanks for putting so much of yourself into it


Richard Derus Lance Greenfield wrote: "That's a really good review, Richard. We are slightly at odds over how great, or not, this book is, but that is healthy. What an appallingly broing world it would be if we all agreed on everything!..."

Thanks very much, Lance. I agree...agreeing all the time wouldn't be particularly interesting. On anything, really.

I haven't read The Island but will investigate.

I no longer approve friend requests where I agree with the person's reviews more than 80% of the time per the GR test. Why? Echo chambers make my head hurt.


Richard Derus Mark wrote: "Lovely review Richard and, as always, thanks for putting so much of yourself into it"

Thank you, Mark, that's very kind of you to say. The very thing you praise is the one that has caused others to flee screaming. My favorite was a "friend" who sent me a one-word message..."Solipsist!"...and unfriended me.

Points for being succinct! And for bothering to say something, other "friends" just unfriend me and never say why.


Lance Greenfield Your comment re echo chambers made me laugh, Richard. Me too!

If you want some entertainment, you should take a look at the conversations which followed my against-the-grain review of The Magic Mountain.


message 17: by Jeffrey (new)

Jeffrey Keeten I read Hawaiilast year and I was really taken with the complicated history of Hawaii. Is it your understanding that the Hawaiians have not all been assimilated by the Borg Empire? I know that Michener isn't the most reliable source, but he certainly whetted my interest. With every review we learn a little bit more about you Richard. Thanks for sharing yourself.


Richard Derus Jeffrey wrote: "I read Hawaiilast year and I was really taken with the complicated history of Hawaii. Is it your understanding that the Hawaiians have not all been assimilated by the Borg Empire?"

There is significant separatist thinking in Hawaii. Not that I blame them, but realistically, nothing will change.

I often wonder about that "sharing myself" strain. I think a review that says "I liked it" is completely and utterly useless as a guide to others without some sense of the reviewer's self-presented identity. One of the most frequent issues taken with my reviews, however, is how personal they are.

People, quite intelligent ones to all appearances, seem to mistake disliking me for my opinion being wrong, or their dislike of the way I express myself for the ideas expressed being invalid.

*shrug* I write the reviews first for myself, to record my thoughts on memorable books, and after that in hopes other readers will see something they can use in choosing books to read and books to avoid.


Richard Derus Thank you, Kat!


message 20: by Hend (new) - added it

Hend Very touching!
and a great review....


Richard Derus Thank you, Hend, I'm glad you liked it!


message 22: by Jason (new) - added it

Jason fantastic review. this one was going to be one of my next reads. i may shelf it though. i have heard a considerable amount about how beautiful this story was... and then a large majority say that it is painstakingly burdensome, with too much historical content, the prose a bit stodgy and thick, and the writing style not a page turner .


Lance Greenfield I think that it either grabs you or it doesn't, Jas. It certainly hauled me in from the start, and kept my interest throughout.

Perhaps what you should do, if you can get your hands on a copy, is read the first twenty or thirty pages, and then decide: now or later....


message 24: by Jason (new) - added it

Jason Lance Greenfield wrote: "I think that it either grabs you or it doesn't, Jas. It certainly hauled me in from the start, and kept my interest throughout.

Perhaps what you should do, if you can get your hands on a copy, is ..."


oh i have a copy... so i guess its a go either way.


Richard Derus I think in the end, Jas, that the prose isn't limber or supple but the story is so very strong that one doesn't mind that much. I had an analogy in there about expecting a weightlifter to be able to do a pirouette, but I had to shelve it. Too jarring.


message 26: by Jason (new) - added it

Jason Richard wrote: "I think in the end, Jas, that the prose isn't limber or supple but the story is so very strong that one doesn't mind that much. I had an analogy in there about expecting a weightlifter to be able t..."

I like that analogy. there are so many other good reads out there about life's struggles (A Tale for the Time Being; wave) that i will shelve this one for later. thanks for the perspective, and a terrific review.


message 27: by Jennifer (new)

Jennifer Mother Marianne Cope, who was a Franciscan nun who went to Molokai, was canonized a Saint in my Parish one year ago. God Bless all those who brought beauty to those forced to be exiled there.


Richard Derus Jennifer wrote: "Mother Marianne Cope, who was a Franciscan nun who went to Molokai, was canonized a Saint in my Parish one year ago. God Bless all those who brought beauty to those forced to be exiled there."

How very interesting! Thanks for sharing that tidbit.


Karen Given the heart felt nature of your comments, I would have expected you to rate this book higher!


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