The tension between history and fiction is realized in different ways by different authors resulting in all kinds of permutations where it is either historical facts that prevail or it is fictional narrative that overpowers history (and all the possible accounts in between). In Moloka’i (New York: St Martin’s Griffin, 2003), Alan Brennert takes a tightrope walk which starts in 1892 in Honolulu and ends in 1970 in the Kalaupapa settlement on Moloka’i. The human protagonist is Rachel Aouli Kalama Utagawa, the non-human protagonist is leprosy. Rachel contracts leprosy at the age of 7; at the end of the 19th century, it is customary to separate children from parents and send the afflicted children to a leprosarium already in existence on another island, Moloka’i. The novel traces Rachel’s life story, concentrating on the manner in which her affliction develops, and also touching upon those historical facts which bring Hawaii into the political, economic, but perhaps not cultural spheres of the United States. Brennert’s desire to treat everyone fairly results in a very readable, heartfelt account of the fictional characters’ vicissitudes, but also brings with it some didactic aspects that detract from the human story.
Clearly, there is no more tragic turn to parents’ life than a severe illness of their child. The special relationship between Rachel and her father (mariner) keeps alive Rachel’s dreams of seeing the world even in the most secluded and separated leprosarium. What the daughter does not know is that her mother loves her as much but does not come and see her as she shelters another of her afflicted children whom she does not want to give up to the government’s care. Rachel needs her family support, but other than her uncle Pono who is with her at Kalaupapa (and who cannot have her live with him on account of specific regulations relating to her young age), she is left in the care of the nuns and doctors. Her situation does not make her totally hopeless: as much as the illness is scary, she participates in the life of the settlement, makes friends, marries, has a child (Ruth) whom she gives up for adoption, and opens a store with her husband, Kenji. The settlement is not a paradise (there are incidents of beatings, drunkenness, lack of good food, lack of special medicines, and there is the senseless murder of Kenji). But there are also examples of complete selflessness on the part of the doctors, nuns and priests who take care of the patients, who are also prone to human weaknesses and questioning their faith.
Rachel’s illness proceeds slowly; she is one of those patients who do not exhibit facial disfigurement although her extremities are affected. Once she is declared eligible for temporary release, she embarks on a difficult journey to locate her family and, above all, her daughter Ruth. Having lived in a secluded island, she does many things for the first time: she takes the plane, checks in a posh hotel, looks for accommodations, looks for a job. She succeeds in finding her sister and also her 32-years old daughter. The reunions illustrate the changing attitudes toward those afflicted with leprosy, since both her sister and her daughter keep in touch with Ruth after she returns to Kalaupapa because she is unable to obtain a job. Both her sister and her daughter attend Ruth’s funeral.
Ruth’s stay at Kalaupapa coincides with two momentous historical events for Hawaii: at the end of the 19th century, the peaceful but dastardly deceitful overthrow of Queen Liliu’okalani by the US Governor leading to the 1898 islands’ annexation to form a strategic asset in the war against Spain. The second is the Japanese bombing of the islands during the second world war. The US hegemonic presence of course is a two-edged sword, since it brings construction of more housing, recreational facilities, medical care, as the US health service takes over the leprosarium; but it also destroys the native way of life, the family culture, Americanizing every step of a Hawaiian’s life (from wearing shoes to using Cristian names, from abandoning native funeral rites and surfing, replaced by American ways and baseball). The author delicately weaves the US hegemonic stance and native victimization, never celebrating one over the other.
Leprosy, as the other protagonist, is a great vehicle for the exploration of human attitudes toward this affliction (ulcerous pus, maggots in dead flesh, ravaged faces, nauseating smell of sores, fingers and bones disappearing, gangrene, infections, muscle and bone pains, etc.), cultural and medical explanations of its course, psychological reactions and coping mechanisms which either make the patient stronger of make him or her more despairing. At the end, human ingenuity and steadfast desire to conquer this scourge prevail and in fact it is now a curable affliction named Hansen’s disease.
Alan Brennert succeeded in shining a strong and humane light on an aspect of Hawaiian history that few are aware of. His characters are credible and depict both human strengths and weaknesses. On the whole, human strength triumphs against all the possible adversities. Ruth comes through not as a hero, but as a person who can cope with adversity in her own way, given some help from well-meaning people. It is a great read, although some parts dwell more on the informational aspect of history than crafting the fictional account. It is clear that the author’s love of the islands and their culture shines through; it is not clear, though, whether he supports the unconditional revival of traditional native culture of the “pagan past” in the form of healing practices, retelling of myths, adopting traditional naming practices.