We didn’t have the scare of Ebola last year yet, but as if by premonition, someone in my book club suggested that we discuss Alan Brennert’s Moloka’i this year. How timely, because as I was reading Brennert’s novel about people suffering and dying from leprosy, and the overall fright and panic at the possibility of being infected by the terrible disease, I couldn’t help but think about the fear of Ebola that the world is now experiencing.
Moloka’i is a riveting saga of the life of Rachel Kalama, a Honolulu native, from 1891 till her death in 1970. She is the daughter of a sailor who spends several months at a time in far-away countries, from where he brings her exotic dolls as gifts. A precocious child interested in geography, Rachel dreams about visiting those places someday, too. But this is not to be. In 1891, at the age of seven, she contracts leprosy. She is ripped out of her home and shipped to a quarantined colony for leprosy patients on the island of Moloka’i. Thus not only are her dreams crushed, but her very existence is now precarious: Will she be cured and leave this place someday, or will she share the fate of her unfortunate friends who are dying young from the disease?
But there is no cure, because “leprosy at present eludes doctors’ understanding.” Since it is contagious, there’s panic among the population. And stigma against the unlucky ones. But the sick aren’t the only victims. This horrible disease takes its toll on their families, too. Siblings of a sick child are shunned at school and in the neighborhood, parents and relatives lose their jobs and are ostracized.
Parents’ sacrifices! One mother chooses to give up on her sick child in order to save her other children, uprooting them from their home and moving to another town where the stigma won’t ruin their lives. Another mother leaves her children with their grandparents, practically abandoning them for good, so that she could tend to her sick husband in the colony, thus sacrificing herself. A father desperately wishes to be a leper so that he can join his daughter on the island.
Can you judge one or another? Not really. You understand each of them, for each one makes their decision out of love and out of despondency.
Alan Brennert describes in vivid detail the tragedy that has befallen the sick in the settlement—their deplorable living conditions, their meager provisions, their deteriorating health, their shattered lives, and worst of all, their isolation from the outside world. They feel even more disadvantaged than prisoners who are jailed for life, because they can’t have visitors.
If doctors are helpless in understanding the causes of leprosy, then how can the sick comprehend the reason why they’re stricken with it? They wonder if “the sickness comes from the soul, from a person’s past actions and state of mind.” 180 Yet, they cling to life, despite death staring into their faces, and their zest for life, perseverance, faith, and strength are admirable.