The Island of Lost Souls – “Moloka’i” by Alan Brennert
Now imagine this has happened to you – and you’re a seven year old girl.
That’s exactly what happens to Rachel, the heroine of Alan Brennert’s “Moloka’i.”
In Brennert’s vibrant coming of age story, Rachel is a normal and happy young girl living with her family on the island of Oahu. Then, a pink spot appears on her skin and she’s diagnosed with leprosy, pulled from her family, and sent off to the leper colony. Though she has an uncle already on the island, she’s put in a boarding house to keep young girls safe from the lawless world of the island. Soon overcoming her initial fears of the disfigured residents of the island, she makes friends (including a transvestite and a suicidal nun) and manages to grow up and to build a life on Moloka’i, which turns out to be not nearly as nightmarish as it originally appeared.
It’s true that in the late 1800s, there was a leper community on the island of Moloka’i in Hawaii where people afflicted with the horrifying disease were sent to die (or live out their time) out of sight and mind from the healthy and “clean” citizens of Hawaii. Brennert based the book on many experiences and texts he read about the time, and it’s a book with as many heart-breaking moments as delightful ones. The stories of families sending their children to Moloka’i and then moving away and changing their names in order to lead a life untainted by the idea that they raised a leper are plentiful, and Brennert captures the emotion of the child left behind very well.
It’s a stunning piece of historical fiction, and one that engrosses the reader into the time period it’s set in. It’s also notable for creating a wide variety of characters that the reader can follow and relate to.
Historical Fiction fans and Hawaii Nerds in particular should take note of “Moloka’i.” Also, Brennert is a big fan of Hawaii, as evidenced by his most recent book – “Honolulu” – which is in stores now and getting good reviews.
(Side Note: While looking up Brennert for information for this post, I discovered that he’s the genius writer behind “Her Pilgrim Soul,” which is an episode of The Twilight Zone I absolutely love. The story has also been made into a one-act musical, which is where I first discovered it. Small world, huh?)