Born in Honolulu, Rachel’s Kalama’s memory of childhood with her mother, sister and two brothers is limited to her first six years, a time when life was full of simple joys and memorable returns, the homecomings of her father Henry, who was away at sea for months on end, his return always marked for Rachel by an anticipated gift, a doll he never failed to present to her, from one of the places he had recently visited.
The last doll she received from him was a nesting doll from Russia that he’d bought in Japan, the matryoshka.
Things started to change when her Uncle Pono fell sick and not only were they not allowed to see him, they weren’t to speak of him to anyone.
After a fight with her sister Sarah, which resulted in scratches on her legs, her mother notices a patch of pink skin with a nasty gash in the middle, one that doesn’t cause Rachel to flinch, something that worries her mother and causes her to become paranoid with fear, fear of leprosy, a disease that carries not only a terrible social stigma, but a life sentence if discovered by the authorities, and they will hunt you down at the first hint of suspicion.
It is the beginning of the end of childhood as Rachel has known it when the Health Inspector calls.
Brennert’s novel, largely based on historical fact, follows Rachel through the quarantine process of those suspected of carrying leprosy (Hansen’s disease) and on to life in Kalaupapa on the island of Moloka’i, allowing a glimpse into the community of sufferers and carers, of the pain of isolation and the irony of the freedom of this close-knit, albeit closed community.
“Love, marriage, divorce, infidelity… life was the same here as anywhere else, wasn’t? She realized now wrong she’d been; the pali wasn’t a headstone and Kalaupapa wasn’t a grave. It was a community like any other, bound by ties deeper than most, and people here went to their deaths as people did anywhere: with great reluctance, dragging the messy jumble of their lives behind them.”
It follows the life of a girl raised by Franciscan nuns, befriended by lepers, loved by her Uncle and an adopted Aunty, coming of age, finding one true love, deprived of maternal love and healing both physical and emotional wounds.
Brennert said of his novel:
“I wanted to tell the story of ordinary people who had to make such heartbreaking sacrifices…”
And one his main characters, Sister Catherine:
“I’ve come to believe that how we choose to live with pain, or injustice, or death is the true measure of the Divine within us…I use to wonder, why did God give children leprosy? Now I believe God doesn’t give anyone leprosy. He gives us, if we choose to use it, the spirit to live with leprosy, and with the imminence of death.”
Not just a tale of their suffering and coming to terms with life and death, it is a clash of cultures as a local population is forced to accept the beliefs and rituals of outsiders, a colonial and christian inheritance, where to stay true to one’s own traditions was seen as an act of rebellion or work of the devil even.
Recommended if you enjoy historical fiction based on real events and enjoy literature set in the islands of the Pacific.
End of an Island Era
A mere 16 leprosy patients remain today in this isolated community of Kalaupapa, a place through whom thousands of sufferers have passed since the 19th century. At present, the youngest member of the colony is 73-years-old. Although mandatory exile was lifted by the state in 1969, a number of patients voluntarily decided to stay. They were offered lifetime housing, amenities and healthcare and did not wish to open their community and environment to uninvited visitors. This may change however, when the colony’s last patient dies.
In an interesting article written by Philip Ross in the International Business Times on 5 May, 2015, he mentions:
Kalaupapa’s history is a tragic tale. In 1866, the Hawaiian government banished anyone diagnosed with leprosy, a chronic bacterial infection also known as Hansen’s disease, to Kalaupapa. More than 8,000 lepers were forced to relocate to the island at a time when there was no cure for the infection.
Men, women and children who had the disease were stigmatized and shunned as outcasts out of fear that their condition was highly contagious. The disease, however, cannot easily be passed from one person to another. Leprosy is caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium leprae that grows slowly and affects the skin and nerves. Symptoms of leprosy include skin sores, and lumps and bumps that disfigure the body and can last for several weeks or months.
Read the entire article and see some incredible pictures here:
Philip Ross, International Business Times Article: Kalaupapa, Hawaii Leper Colony: A Look Inside The Remote Island Home For The State’s Few Surviving Leprosy Patients