In this historical fiction, a young Hawaiian girl is ripped from her family and sent to a remote community isolating those with the same illness she has contracted (Hansen’s disease, incorrectly called leprosy at the time).
Our book club chose to read this 2003 title for discussion, and I’m so glad someone suggested it. This is a wonderfully captivating fiction with a strong nonfiction basis and many lessons to offer.
Everyone who lands on the Hawaiian island of Moloka’i is surprised (as are we readers) to find this “leper colony” is simply another small town community – with a few notable changes: There are stores, a post office, routine garbage pickup, people of all ages and several races, and a variety of religious beliefs. There are also doctors, hospitals, people with strange and monstrous deformities, and many, many cemeteries.
Rachel is merely 7 years old when she arrives on Moloka’i, and despite the fact she has a beloved uncle on the island, she is forced to live in the girls’ home run by the missionary nuns. She adjusts and makes friends, but never stops missing her family on the big island. Rachel lives, loves, and flourishes on Moloka’i, always wishing and hoping to leave, to travel the world, and to see and experience new cultures.
I basically consumed this book in a sitting, and I adored the island’s funny, creative citizens who were so full of life in the face of death. As any life would, Rachel’s story has ups and downs, joys and heartbreaks. I learned so much about Hawaii history and about Hansen’s disease - I will heartily recommend this book for literary and historical fiction lovers.