This month’s selection for the “My Neighbors Are Better Than Your Neighbors” book club was Moloka’i by Alan Brennert. It’s set in a tropical paradise (Hawaii, if you hadn’t guessed by my greeting) but the subject matter was anything but a luau.
Leprosy! What do you know about it? Before reading this book, I knew surprisingly little. I knew that when lepers were depicted in movies about the middle ages, they were always wrapped up in white cloth. Aside from that, the only other references to leprosy I could pull out of my head were from an episode of House, M.D. and a long ago CCD class. (CCD is supplemental religious education for Catholic kids who don’t attend Catholic school, where religion is part of the curriculum. If you were ME, that meant you gave up SATURDAY MORNING CARTOONS for a big chunk of childhood. Not bitter. Totally not bitter…)
Anyway, the reference I recalled was the story of Father Damien. He was a priest who worked in a leper colony and eventually contracted the disease himself and died. He was later canonized as a saint. Guess where that leper colony was? The Hawaiian island of Moloka’i! Father Damien actually makes an appearance in this book. And my life comes full circle…
Rachel Kalama is a little pipsqueak of a child when she’s diagnosed with leprosy. In the late 1800s, little was understood about the disease, other than that it was frightening, disfiguring, and fatal. I hate not knowing things, so I took to google. (Word to the wise: DO NOT DO AN IMAGE SEARCH ON LEPROSY. There are some things you cannot unsee.) Leprosy is caused by a bacteria. It is estimated that 95% of the population is naturally immune to the disease. Interesting, right? This explains why it never became a full on plague. What was fascinating was that native Hawaiians were unusually susceptible to the disease, causing something of an outbreak, and terrifying the population. This makes sense because an isolated population wouldn’t have incorporated the immunity into their DNA pool the same way a more mingle-y population would have. Oh science. You’re a trickster.
Of course, nobody knew this at the time. All they knew was that Hawaiians were getting leprosy, they knew it was somehow contagious, but that had no idea how contagious. So… They took a spare island and threw all the lepers on it. Moloka’i's early history as a leper colony was pretty brutal- they didn’t have a lot of housing or healthcare, and people were basically dumped to die. Luckily, by the time Rachel arrived on Moloka’i, things sucked a little less. I mean, they still had leprosy, but the little community banded together and became ohana (Family. Go watch Lilo and Stitch, I mean really. That should be culturally ubiquitous by now.)
I’m getting very rambly on the science bit here, I know. Let’s talk story. This is historical fiction, so it should not surprise you in the slightest that I totally loved this book. This book is set during an exceptionally dynamic time. When Rachel arrives on Moloka’i, they don’t even have electricity. Throughout the book we experience all the new technology with her: electricity, indoor plumbing, automobiles, airplanes. We also get to witness the metamorphosis of medical technology and the treatments of leprosy. Fantastic stuff.
Bottom line? You should read this book. It’s everything I love about historical fiction, with a side of epidemiological intrigue. What do you think, Bookworms? Do you like your fiction with a side of learning?