A gritty story of love and survival in a Hawaiian leper colony: more a portrait of old Hawaii than a compelling narrative.
The chronicle of leprosy-infected Rachel Kalama begins in 1891 in Honolulu and ends in the late 1960s on isolated Moloka’i, site of the Kalaupapa Leprosy settlement. As much a record of her life as of the changes in Hawaii itself over the years, screenwriter and fantasy author Brennert (Her Pilgrim Soul, 1990, etc.) vividly and graphically details both the landscape and the disease as he tells Rachel’s story. She’s five at the start, when her father, a sailor, comes back in time for Christmas with another doll for her collection and gifts for her older siblings Sarah, Ben, and Kimo. A few months later, Rachel is found to have leprosy, and the happy life the family has enjoyed ends. Considered dangerously contagious, Rachel is sent to the settlement on Molaka’i. There, in a hospital run by Catholic nuns, she lives with other young girls affected in varying degrees. As the years pass, Rachel’s friends die; she befriends Sister Catherine, whose affection will sustain her; but, with the exception of her father, she has no contact with her family. Poor Rachel is doomed not only to suffer horribly but also to bear witness to history: a history that includes the end of the monarchy, the US annexation, the arrival of movies and airplanes, the Depression, and Pearl Harbor. Brennert also details changes in the treatment of leprosy—herbal injections, surgery, and, finally, the cure in the 1940’s: sulfa derivatives. While Hawaii changes, Rachel grows up, falls in love, and marries Kenji, a fellow patient. She bears a daughter, but Ruth must immediately give the child up for adoption to avoid infection. Amid the heartbreak, Kenji is murdered and Rachel’s symptoms worsen (she loses the fingers of her right hand). Rachel, though, is a survivor, and unexpected reunions compensate as she returns to a much-changed Honolulu.
Not a comfortable read, but certainly instructive.