Sunday, May 30, 2010

Book Review - Moloka'i by Alan Brennert

Title: Moloka'i
Author: Alan Brennert
Year: 2004 
Page: 400 
Genre: Fiction - Historical

New to me author? Yes 
Read this author again? Probably not 
Tearjerker? No 
Where did it take place? US
FTC Disclosure: Borrowed from the library

Summary (from
Compellingly original in its conceit, Brennert's sweeping debut novel tracks the grim struggle of a Hawaiian woman who contracts leprosy as a child in Honolulu during the 1890s and is deported to the island of Moloka'i, where she grows to adulthood at the quarantined settlement of Kalaupapa. Rachel Kalama is the plucky, seven-year-old heroine whose family is devastated when first her uncle Pono and then she develop leprous sores and are quarantined with the disease. While Rachel's symptoms remain mild during her youth, she watches others her age dying from the disease in near total isolation from family and friends. Rachel finds happiness when she meets Kenji Utagawa, a fellow leprosy victim whose illness brings shame on his Japanese family. After a tender courtship, Rachel and Kenji marry and have a daughter, but the birth of their healthy baby brings as much grief as joy, when they must give her up for adoption to prevent infection. The couple cope with the loss of their daughter and settle into a productive working life until Kenji tries to stop a quarantined U.S. soldier from beating up his girlfriend and is tragically killed in the subsequent fight. The poignant concluding chapters portray Rachel's final years after sulfa drugs are discovered as a cure, leaving her free to abandon Moloka'i and seek out her family and daughter. Brennert's compassion makes Rachel a memorable character, and his smooth storytelling vividly brings early 20th-century Hawaii to life. Leprosy may seem a macabre subject, but Brennert transforms the material into a touching, lovely account of a woman's journey as she rises above the limitations of a devastating illness.

First Sentence:
Later, when memory was all she had to sustain her, she would come to cherish it: Old Honolulu as it was then, as it would never be again.   

Why did I pick this book?
Heard about it from an online forum and quite a few people recommended it. As I tried to widen the genre I read, I decided to read this, plus I want to visit Hawaii!

My thoughts:
  • I had such high hope for this book, and sadly it didn't quite live up to my expectations. I found the premise interesting - I don't know a whole lot about leprosy and the history of Molokai, so I definitely learned something. However, what potentially could have been a heart wrenching story (family separation, fear from those who were "clean", deteriorating health...), was a rather boring story to me... the pace was rather slow, and the writing was flat. More importantly, I don't feel emotionally attached to the characters. I don't dislike them, but I don't love them - when I read a good book, I couldn't wait to find out what happened to the characters; I'd be thinking about them when I couldn't read. But not this time... I didn't cry with them, I didn't laugh with them. I was more just an observer, rather than living their tales.
  • The book really was about Rachel's life, from when she was a young child up until her death - I suppose some would argue that 400 pages isn't too long for one's life story... but everything seemed to just tied up too neatly. 
  • I did find something I like - Keo - the name of one of the minor characters
  •  All in all, I felt like the book presented more fact, than stories; but not enough to call it a non-fiction book.


    "There's only one disadvantage, really, to having two mothers," Ruth admitted. "You know twice the love... but you grieve twice as much." (p382)

    Rating: 3 Stars

    Have you read this book? 
    If you have, I would love to hear what you think! I'll link your review here if you wish!

    100+ Reading


    1. Sorry to hear this didn't do it for you; I've had it on my list for some time because I thought it sounded interesting, but somehow, I just can't seem to make myself get around to it.

    2. I have this book to read for a challenge this year, but I have been putting it off.. Maybe I will take it up in December. Sorry that it didn't work out for you, I have a feeling I will be in a similar boat.

    3. @Misty - I heard many good reviews about it, so do give it a try! I did learn something new, but I just thought it was a bit faster paced...

      @Juju - the cover is pretty!

      @Aths - if you like character-study books, you'd probably enjoy it more than I do. I don't regret reading it, just had high expectations i guess!