...an epic work of historical fiction
The story begins late in the 19th century in Hawaii. Rachael Kalama is the youngest child in a native Hawaiian family. At the age of 7 her mother notices a red patch of skin on her leg that is insensitive to pain. In short order she is diagnosed with leprosy and quarantined in the lepers’ hospital at Kahili on Oahu. She spends a year there and is then sent to Kalaupapa the leper colony on Moloka’i. Even though she has an uncle who has the disease and resides there she is forced to live in a girls orphanage staffed by Roman Catholic nuns. Physically and emotionally separated from her family Rachael builds a new life and new family among the residents of the leper colony. Although her father remains faithful and visits his daughter Rachael never again hears from her mother. It was quite common for families to abandon children with this diagnosis.
Rachael’s story as it unfolds is also the story of many leprous patients in the 20th century. The author does not flinch from describing the effects of this disease on the body and the terrible toll that it takes in life expectancy and in handicaps. Rachael’s story is interspersed with historical events (WWII, the great depression) and changes that occur on Moloka’i. There are many strong characters in this story. First off Rachael – she is strong, charismatic and pragmatic in her approach to life. Her disease advances slowly so we know her story through her teen years, marriage and old age. She is surely a character who will remain in your mind long after reading this story. Of all of the sisters who work in the leper colony we get to know Sister Catherine the best. She is depicted very realistically. She has doubts about her faith and struggles to understand why children are stricken with this horrible disease. Again a strong portrayal. The author sticks with the story through the development of effective treatments for the disease in the 1970s. This allows for a happier ending (who doesn’t like a happy ending) for Rachael.
The book has a strong sense of place. The descriptions of Hawaii are excellent and the dialogue is replete with native Hawaiian words. This was a topic and a place that I knew little about, so I really enjoyed this story. The author's note at the end of the story was particularly welcome as it noted the sections that were true and the true life figures who provided inspiration for some of the major characters.
I listened to the audio book that was read by Anne Noelani Miyamoto. In the beginning I did not like her narration but as the story went on I came to appreciate her skill in differentiating the racial diversity of the characters.
I listened to a copy of this audio book that I borrowed.