by Alan Brennert

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This richly imagined novel, set in Hawai'i more than a century ago, is an extraordinary epic of a little-known time and place—-and a deeply moving testament to the resiliency of the human spirit.

Rachel Kalama, a spirited seven-year-old Hawaiian girl, dreams of visiting far-off lands like her father, a merchant seaman. Then one day a rose-colored mark appears on her skin, and those dreams are stolen from her. Taken from her home and family, Rachel is sent to Kalaupapa, the quarantined leprosy settlement on the island of Moloka'i. Here her life is supposed to end—-but instead she discovers it is only just beginning.

With a vibrant cast of vividly realized characters, Moloka'i is the true-to-life chronicle of a people who embraced life in the face of death. Such is the warmth, humor, and compassion of this novel that "few readers will remain unchanged by Rachel's story" (

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312304355
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 10/04/2004
Series: Moloka'i Series
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 18,466
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Alan Brennert is a novelist (Time and Chance) as well as an Emmy Award-winning screenwriter (L.A. Law). He lives in Southern California, but his heart is in Hawai'i.

Read an Excerpt


By Alan Brennert

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2003 Alan Brennert
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-0228-1



Later, when memory was all she had to sustain her, she would come to cherish it: Old Honolulu as it was then, as it would never be again. To a visitor it must have seemed a lush garden of fanciful hybrids: a Florentine-style palace shaded by banyan and monkeypod trees; wooden storefronts flourishing on dusty streets, cuttings from America's Old West; tall New England church steeples blooming above the palm and coconut groves. To a visitor it must have seemed at once exotic and familiar; to five-year-old Rachel it was a playground, and it was home.

Certain things stood out in memory, she couldn't say why: the weight and feel of a five-cent hapa'umi coin in her pocket; the taste of cold Tahiti lemonade on a hot day; palm fronds rustling like locusts high above, as she and her brothers played among the rice paddies and fishponds of Waikiki. She remembered taking a swim, much to her mother's dismay, in the broad canals of Kapi'olani Park; she could still feel the mossy bottom, the slippery stones beneath her feet. She remembered riding the trolley cars with her sister up King Street — the two of them squeezed in amidst passengers carrying everything from squid to pigs, chickens to Chinese laundry — mules and horses exuberantly defecating as they dragged the tram along in their wake. Rachel's eyes popped at the size of the turds, longer than her arm, and she giggled when the trolley's wheels squished them underneath.

But most of all, most clearly of all, she remembered Steamer Day — because that was when her father came home.

"Is today Steamer Day?"

"No." Rachel's mother handed her a freshly cooked taro root. "Here. Peel."

Rachel nimbly stripped off the soft purple skin, taking care not to bruise the stem itself, and looked hopefully at her mother. "Is tomorrow Steamer Day?"

Dorothy Kalama, stern-faced at the best of times, shot her daughter an exasperated look. "How do I know? I'm standing lookout on Koko Head, that's where you think I am?" With a stone pestle she pounded a slice of peeled taro into a smooth hard paste, then shrugged. "Could be another week, anyway, before he comes."

"Oh, no, Mama." They'd received a letter from Papa exactly five weeks ago, mailed in Samoa, informing them he'd be leaving for home in a month; and Rachel knew for a fact that the crossing took no more than a week. "Two thousand, two hundred and ninety miles from Samoa to Honolulu," she announced proudly.

Her mother regarded her skeptically. "You know how big is a mile?"

Rachel thought a moment, her round chubby face sober in reflection, then stretched her arms as wide as she could. Dorothy laughed, but before she could respond there was an explosion of boy-noise from outside.

"I hate you! Go 'way!"

"You go 'way!"

Rachel's brothers, Benjamin and James — Kimo to everyone but Mama, who disapproved of all but Christian names — roughhoused their way up the front steps and into the house. The sparsely furnished wood-frame home was nearly one large open room: living and dining areas on one side, stove, sink, and cupboards on the other; a tiny corridor led to a triad of tiny bedrooms. Pummeling each other with pulled punches, the boys skidded across a big mat woven from pandanus leaves, Kimo's legs briefly akimbo, like a wishbone in mid-wish.

"You're a big bully!" Ben accused Kimo.

"You're a big baby!" Kimo accused Ben.

Dorothy scooped up two wet handfuls of taro skin and lobbed them at her sons. In moments the boys were sputtering out damp strips of purple taro as Dorothy stood before them, hands on hips, brown eyes blazing righteously.

"What's wrong with you! Fighting on the Sabbath! Now clean your faces and get ready for church, or else!"

"Kimo started it!"

"God don't care who started it! All He cares about is that somebody's making trouble on His day!"

"But, Mama —"

Dorothy hefted another handful of taro skin, and as if by kahuna sorcery the boys vanished without another cross word into their shared bedroom.

"I'm done, Mama." Rachel handed the peeled taro to her mother, who eyed it approvingly. "Well now," Dorothy said, face softening, "that's a good job you did." She cut the taro into smaller pieces, pounded them into paste, then added just the right amount of water to it. "You want to mix?" she asked Rachel, whose small hands dove eagerly into the smooth paste and kneaded it — with a little help from her mother — until, wondrously, it was no longer mere taro but delicious poi.

"Mama, these shoes are too tight!" Rachel's sister Sarah, two years older, thumped into the room in a white cotton dress with black stockings, affecting a hobble as she pointed at her black leather buttontop shoes. "I can't feel my toes." She saw Rachel's fingers sticky with poi and reflexively made a sour face. "That looks lumpy."

Dorothy gave her a scowl. "Your head's lumpy. Rachel did a fine job, didn't she?" She tousled Rachel's long black hair; Rachel beamed and shot Sarah a look that said ha! Dorothy turned back to Sarah. "No sandals in church. Guess your toes just gonna fall off. And go get your hat!" Her hobble miraculously healed, Sarah sprinted away, though not without a parting grimace at her sister, who was enthusiastically licking the poi off her fingers.

It was a half-mile's walk to Kaumakapili Church, made even longer by the necessity of shoes, and Dorothy did not fail to remind her children — she never failed to remind them — how fortunate they were to worship at such a beautiful new church, opened just three years before. Its twin wooden spires — "the better to find God," the king had declared upon their completion — towered like huge javelins above their nearest neighbors. The spires were mirrored in the waters of nearby Nu'uanu Stream, and to the devout it might appear as though they were pointing not just at heaven but, defiantly, at hell as well, as though challenging Satan in his own domain.

As Dorothy joined with the congregation in singing "Rock of Ages," her children sat, in varying degrees of piety, in Sabbath School. In her kindergarten class Rachel drew Bible scenes with colored crayons, then listened attentively to her teacher, Mr. MacReedy, a veteran of the American Civil War with silvered hair and a shuffle in his walk courtesy of a round of grapeshot to his right foot.

"'And in the fourth watch of the night,'" Mr. MacReedy recited from the Book of Matthew, "'Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea. And when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they —'"

He saw that Rachel's hand was bobbing in the air. "Yes? Rachel?"

Soberly, Rachel asked, "Which sea?"

Her teacher blinked. "What?"

"Which sea did he walk on?"

"Ah ... well ..." He scanned the page, vexedly. "It don't say."

"Was it the Pacific?"

"No, I reckon it wasn't."

"The Atlantic?"

"It don't matter, child. What's important is that he was walking on the sea, not which particular sea it was."

"Oh." Rachel was disappointed. "I just wondered."

Mr. MacReedy continued, telling them of how Jesus bade Peter to walk onto the water with him; how He then went to a new land; and how, "when the men of that place had knowledge of him, they sent out into all that country round about, and brought unto him all that were diseased; And besought him that they might only touch the hem of his garment: and as many as touched were made whole.

"'Then Jesus went thence, and departed into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a woman of Canaan came out of —'"

Rachel's hand shot up again.

Her teacher sighed. "Yes, Rachel," he said wearily.

"Where's Tyre? And — Sidon?"

Mr. MacReedy took off his reading glasses.

"They were cities. Someplace in the Holy Land. And before you ask, 'Canaan' was an old name for Palestine, or parts of it, anyway. That good enough for you, child?"

Rachel nodded. Her teacher replaced his glasses and continued chronicling Jesus' sojourn. "'And Jesus departed thence, and came nigh unto the sea of Galilee ...'"

Mr. MacReedy paused, peered over his glasses at Rachel and said, "I would infer, if anyone's interested, that this is the selfsame sea the Lord walked on a bit earlier."

After church came Rachel's favorite part of the day, when Mama stopped at Love's Bakery on Nu'uanu Avenue to buy fresh milk bread, baked that morning. Love's was a cathedral of sugar, a holy place of sweets and starches: pound cake, seedcake, biscuits, Jenny Lind cake, soda crackers, cupcakes. Sometimes the owner, Fanny Love, was there to greet customers; sometimes it was her eldest son James, who with a wink and a smile would slip Rachel a cookie or a slice of nutcake and announce, "You're the twenty-eighth customer today; here's your prize!"

Sometimes Mama would buy day-old bread rather than fresh, or as now, try to haggle some leftover New Year's cake for a few pennies less. Even at her age Rachel understood money was often a problem in her family, and though she rarely wanted for anything of substance she knew Mama worked hard to stretch out the money Papa left her; particularly now, eight months after they last saw him.

That night, as every night, Mama stood by Rachel's bedside and made sure she said her prayers, and Rachel never failed to add one of her own: that God help Papa come safely across the sea, and soon.

* * *

Honolulu Harbor was a forest of ship's masts huddled within encircling coral reefs, a narrow channel threading through the reefs and out to open sea. Unlike picturesque Waikiki to the east — a bright crescent of sand in the lee of majestic Le'ahi, or "Diamond Head" as the haoles, the white foreigners, had rechristened it — the harbor was an unglamorous collection of cattle wharves, trading companies, saloons, and the occasional brothel. On any given day there might be up to a hundred ships anchored here: barks, schooners, brigantines, cruisers, and more and more, steamers — their squat metal smokestacks proliferating among the wooden masts, an advance guard of the new century. Yet the arrival of a steamship was still exciting enough that whenever one was seen riding the horizon, CLOSED signs sprang up in store windows across the city and men, women, and children thronged toward the harbor to greet the incoming ship.

Rachel, perched on her mother's shoulders, peered over the heads of the crowd surging around them and thrilled to the sight of the SS Mariposa steaming toward port. A pilot boat met the steamer and guided it through the channel; then as the ships drew closer to shore the Royal Hawaiian Band, which was gathered at pier's end, struck up the national anthem, "Hawai'i Pono'i," composed by King Kalakaua himself.

As the Mariposa eased into its berth beside a mountain of black coal, Rachel caught sight of a sailor tossing a thick hawser off the deck and onto the dock. He was a stocky Hawaiian in his young thirties, his thick muscled arms tanned by the blistering sun of even lower latitudes. "Papa!" she yelled, waving, but Papa was too busy helping tie up the ship to notice. It was only after all the passengers had disembarked and the cargo was on its way out of the ship's hold that Rachel at last saw her father walk down the gangway, a duffel bag in one hand, a big weathered suitcase in the other.

Henry Kalama, a happy grin on his broad friendly face, hefted his suitcase as though he were about to throw it. "'Ey! Little girl! Catch!"

Rachel giggled. Henry ran up and Dorothy gave him a reproachful look: "Good-for-nothing rascal, where you been the last eight months?" And she kissed him with a ferocity that quite belied her words.

"Papa!" Rachel was jumping up and down, and now Henry scooped her up in his big arms. "'Ey, there she is. There's my baby!" He kissed her on the cheek and Rachel wrapped her arms around his thick neck. "I missed you, little girl," he said in a tone so gentle it made Dorothy want to cry. Then he looked at his wife and added, with exaggerated afterthought, "Oh. You, too."

"Yeah, yeah, same to you, no-good." But she didn't object when Henry kissed her again, still holding Rachel in one arm, the five-year-old making an Eee-uu face. Dorothy lifted her husband's duffel bag with one hand, slipped the other around his waist, and the three of them started through the crowd, a winch's chain chattering above them as it yanked an enormous crate into the air.

"You sell the other keiki?" Henry asked, noting the absence of his older children.

"In school. Rachel oughtta be, but —"

"Where'd you go this time, Papa?"

"Oh, all over. One ship went to Japan and China, this one stopped in Australia, New Zealand, Samoa ..."

"We got your letter from Samoa!"

On short notice Dorothy organized a feast to celebrate Henry's return. Dorothy's brother Will brought twenty pounds of fresh skipjack tuna he'd caught in his nets that morning; Henry's sister Florence made her best haupia pudding, rich with coconut cream; and Rachel helped her mother and Aunt Flo wrap ti leaves around the fresh beef and pork Papa bought at Tinker's Market, the first meat they had seen in weeks.

Friends and family crowded into the Kalama home that night, laughing and eating, singing and talking story. Rachel sat, as she often did at such gatherings, on the lap of her tall, rangy Uncle Pono — Papa's older brother, Kapono Kalama, a plantation worker in Waimanalo. "'Ey, there's my favorite niece!" he would say, hoisting her into his arms. "You married yet?" Rachel soberly shook her head. "Why not?" Pono shot back. "Good-looking girl like you? You gonna be an old maid, you wait much longer!" When Rachel did her best not to laugh at his teasing, Pono resorted to tickling — and as she curled up like a snail in his lap, giggling uncontrollably, he'd say, "See, pretty funny after all, eh?"

Later, Henry's brood gathered round as he handed out the presents he never neglected to bring home from faraway ports. They were modest gifts, befitting a seaman's wages, but Papa had uncommonly good taste and always chose something to charm and delight them. Dorothy was presented with a pretty string necklace beaded with dozens of small, imperfectly shaped pearls, each plucked from the ocean floor by native divers in Rarotonga. Sarah was thrilled to receive a pair of silver earrings from New Zealand, though the silver in them probably wouldn't have filled a tooth. Kimo got a box of Chinese puzzles; Ben, a picture book from Tokyo, and another from Hong Kong.

Rachel knew what Papa had brought her, of course. What he always brought her: a doll from one of the countries he'd visited. Already she had a sakura-ningyö, a "cherry doll" from Japan; a pair of Mission Dolls from China; and a rag baby from America, purchased on Papa's last trip to San Francisco. What would it be this time? Rachel could hardly contain herself as Papa pulled the last gift box from his suitcase.

"And this one's for Rachel," he said, "from Japan."

Rachel was crestfallen. She already had a Japanese doll! Had Papa forgotten? Trying not to betray her disappointment, she tore the lid off the box, stripping away the tissue paper enfolding the doll. ...

That is, assuming it was a doll. Rachel stared in confusion at the contents of the box, which appeared to be ... an egg. A large wooden egg, no neck, a fat body, a bundled scarf and winter clothes painted on — Humpty Dumpty, but with a woman's face. Hilda Dumpty?

Rachel was surprised at how heavy it was, and entranced by its odd appearance. "What is it?" she asked.

Her father scolded, "But you're not done opening the present!" He pointed at the egg. "Hold the bottom with one hand, the head with the other. Then pull."

Rachel did as she was told — then jumped as the egg popped apart, and a second egg fell out! This smaller one resembled a man with a painted-on farmer's outfit; but when Rachel began examining it her father wagged a finger: "Still not finished!" Rachel pulled apart the second doll to discover yet a third one, a young girl-egg this time.

Everyone laughed at the expression on Rachel's face as she kept finding littler and littler dolls growing younger and younger, seven in all — the last an infant in painted-on swaddling, made of solid wood.

"They call 'em matryoshka," Papa explained. "Nesting dolls. From Russia."


Excerpted from Moloka'i by Alan Brennert. Copyright © 2003 Alan Brennert. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


PART ONE: Blue Vault of Heaven,
PART TWO: The Stone Leaf,
PART FOUR: 'Ohana,
Author's Note,

Reading Group Guide


The first boatload of exiles to Moloka'i landed on January 6, 1866. Among the nine men and three women was one J. D. Kahauliko, who on February 1 wrote this beseeching letter (originally in Hawaiian) to T. C. Heuck of the Board of Health—one of the earliest written records we have from a patient at Kalawao:

Dear Sir,

An opportunity has been afforded me to inform you how we are getting along in Moloka'i. There is plenty of food on the land here, in Moloka'i. But there is one thing that we are in need of which we inform you of, and that is the want of a Kamaaina (old resident) . . . to show us where the mea ai [food] grows on the pali . . . We all (the lepers) desire to get some of the food that is on the pali. But as we are all strangers on the land we cannot therefore go and [find] it, what is growing on the pali. Therefore one of the Kamaainas came and said to me . . . that "if you desire me to go and get you something to eat then I can go, because we have been so instructed by the Board of Health." He started to go and get something to eat for us, together with one of the lepers. But while the man was going up with one of the Lepers, our Luna [superintendent] L. Lepart rushed after the man, and with great anger brought him to our houses, and asked us, who ordered the man to go up mauka. . . . He told us all that we had no right to send any man (or Kamaaina) to go up and get anything to eat for us. If you want anything to eat, you must get it yourselves. . . .

(Signed) J. D. Kahauliko


Sometimes the most eloquent voices take the most prosaic form. Consider these excerpts from an official inventory—by schoolteacher and eventual luna Donald Walsh in 1867—cataloging conditions and contents of each household in the settlement:

No. 1 House

1 Pot. 1 Pint tin. 1 Water Can. 1 Lamp. 1 Knife. 1 Spoon.

Inmates [sic] Kameo [possessions] Makings of shirt. 1 good red blanket. No pants. Kila (child) 1 blanket 1 frock 1 old pants

Remarks - These are father & son the wife lives with them. The house seems pretty well provided with necessaries.

No. 4 House

1 Pot. No Water Cask/w can. 1 Lamp. 2 Dishes. 1 Knife. 2 Spoons.

Inmates - Kaahu. 1 Blanket 1 gown Napua. 1 Shirt

1 old pants 1 cloth pants Kepilina. 1 gray blanket

Remarks - Kaahu is in the last stage of leprosy.... This house is cold, filthy, and wretched. It leaks.

No. 38 House

1 pint tin. 1 Knife. 1 Spoon

Inmates - Kaiokalani/woman. 1 blanket. No clothes

Remarks - This is the most wretched of all the houses. I do not think she sleeps in it.


From Robert Louis Stevenson:

They were strangers to each other, collected by common calamity, disfigured, mortally sick, banished without sin from home and friends. Few would understand the principle on which they were thus forfeited in all that makes life dear; many must have conceived their ostracism to be grounded in malevolent caprice; all came with sorrow at heart, many with despair and rage. In the chronicle of man there is perhaps no more melancholy landing than this of the leper immigrants among the ruined houses and dead harvests of Moloka'i. But the spirit of our race is finely tempered and the business of life engrossing to the last. As a spider, when you have wrecked its web, begins immediately to spin fresh strands, so these exiles, widowed, orphaned, un-childed, legally dead and physically dying, struck root in their new place . . . fell to work with growing hope, repaired the houses, replanted the fields, and began to look about them with the pride of the proprietor. . . . And one thing is sure, the most disgraced of that unhappy crew may expect the consolations of love; love laughs at leprosy; and marriage is in use to the last stage of decay and the last gasp of life.


On May 10, 1873, a young Catholic priest arrived on Moloka'i, little realizing that one day his name, Father Damien de Veuster, would be irrevocably linked to the island:

I am sending this letter by way of the schooner Waniki to let you know that from now on there ought to be a permanent priest in this place. Boatloads of the sick are arriving, and many are dying. I sleep under a pu hala [tree] while I wait for the lumber to build a rectory such as you would judge appropriate. . . . You know my conviction; I wish to give myself unconditionally to the poor lepers. The harvest appears to be ripe here. Pray, and ask others to pray for me and for all here.


Already resident at Kalaupapa was royal-born Peter Kaeo, cousin to Queen Emma. He had the wherewithal to maintain a comfortable existence for himself, including two servants, but was not unaware of the poverty and desperation around him. From Peter Kaeo to Queen Emma, August 11, 1873:

Deaths occur quite frequently here, almost dayly. Napela [the luna] last week rode around the Beach to inspeck the Lepers and came on to one that had no Pai [taro] for a Week but manage to live on what he could find in his Hut, anything Chewable. His legs were so bad that he cannot walk, and few traverse the spot where His Hut stands, but fortunate enough for him that he had sufficient enough water to last him till aid came and that not too late, or else probably he must have died.


In 1884 the Board of Health assigned a distinguished physician, Dr. J. H. Stallard, to review conditions at Kalaupapa. Part of his stinging indictment:

The excessive mortality rate alone condemns the management [of the settlement]. During the year 1883, there were no less than 150 deaths . . . more than ten times that of any ordinary community of an unhealthy type. The high mortality has not been caused by leprosy, but by dysentery, a disease not caused by any local insanitary conditions, but by gross neglect.


Father Damien himself succumbed to leprosy on April 15, 1889, but he lived to see the arrival of Mother Marianne Cope and the Sisters of St. Francis, who, would carry on his work. From the writings of Sister Mary Leopoldina Burns:

One could never imagine what a lonely barren place it was. Not a tree nor a shrub in the whole Settlement only in the churchyard there were a few poor little trees that were so bent and yellow by the continued sweep of the birning wind it would make one sad to look at them.


In 1889, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about the children on the island:

The case of the children is by far the most sad; and yet, thanks to Damien and that great Hawaiian lady, the kind Mrs. Bishop, and to the kind sisters, their hardship has been minimized. Even the boys in the still rude boys' home at Kalawao appeared cheerful and youthful; they interchange diversions in the boys' way; are one week all for football, and the next the devotees of marbles or of kites; have fiddles, drums, guitars, and penny whistles; some can touch the organ, and all combine in concerts. As for the girls in the Bishop Home, of the many beautiful things I have been privileged to see in life, they, and what has been done for them, are not the least beautiful.


By the time writer Jack London visited in 1907, Kalaupapa, under new luna J. D. McVeigh and physician William Goodhue, was undergoing a remarkable transformation. From Jack London, The Cruise of the Snark:

When the Snark sailed along the windward coast of Moloka'i, on her way to Honolulu, I looked at the chart, then pointed to a low-lying peninsula backed by a tremendous cliff varying from two to four thousand feet in height, and said: "The pit of hell, the most cursed place on earth." I should have been shocked, if, at that moment, I could have caught a vision of myself a month later, ashore in the most cursed place on earth, and having a disgracefully good time along with eight hundred of the lepers who were likewise having a good time [at the racetrack].… They were yelling, tossing their hats, and dancing around like fiends. So was I. . . . Major Lee, an American and long a marine engineer for the InterIsland Steamship Company, I met actively at work in the new steam laundry, where he was busy installing the machinery. I met him often, afterwards, and one day he said to me: "Give us a good breeze about how we live here. For heaven's sake write us up straight. Put your foot down on this chamber-of-horrors rot and all the rest of it. We don't like being misrepresented. We've got some feelings. Just tell the world how we really are in here."


From Katherine Fullerton Gerould, Hawaii: Scenes and Impressions (1916):

White magic seems to be at work at Kalaupapa. I can record it as solemn fact that once you are on the promontory all panic, fear, or disgust drops utterly away. . . . I got at Kalaupapa—and got it before five minutes were sped—the highest impression of social decency I have ever had.


And yet, as humane and civilized as the settlement had by and large become, the exiles were still exiles, a fact that weighed on some of them more than others. From Store manager, Shizuo Harada to Ernie Pyle, 1938:

[S]ometimes I feel in good spirits and sometimes I get way down in the dumps. . . . It does something to you after a few years here. I can tell it has done something to me, but I fight against it. You lose the spirit of—I don't know what you'd call it—the spirit of fraternity, I guess. That's the reason I've tried to keep busy and keep little activities going among the others. In school I was active in athletics, and in organizing things. Here I've got several leagues going—handball and things like that. I can't play myself any more, on account of my hands. But it's hard to keep an organization going. There isn't enough permanence about it. You get some good key men, and the first thing you know they're gone. It takes the spirit out.


[Harada] said several times that if there was anything personal about the patients I could think to ask, he would try his best to give me the answer. But I ran out of questions, and then we talked about general things. He was interested in my job, and I told him of things I had seen in Alaska and other places. I shall always have a mental picture, to the end of my days, of us sitting there talking. Sitting in chairs, face to face, not three feet apart—one "clean" and one "unclean," as Harada would put it. The truth would be: one lucky and one unlucky. But whatever our appearances, we talked and talked and talked. Thoughts are wonderful things, that they can bring two people, so far apart, into harmony and understanding for even a little while.

—Ernie Pyle, Home Country


According to the World Health Organization, more than 400,000 new cases of Hansen's disease were recorded globally in 2004. Almost 300,000 of those were in Southeast Asia, with the remainder in Africa, the Americas, and elsewhere. But the incidence of new cases has been decreasing the last several years, and WHO still hopes to eventually eradicate the disease around the world. You can find more information at www://

1. The book's opening paragraph likens Hawai'i in the 19th century to a garden. In what ways is Hawai'i comparable to another, Biblical, garden?

2. Given what was known at the time of the causes and contagion of leprosy, was the Hawaiian government's isolation of patients on Moloka'i justified or not?

3. How is Hawai'i's treatment of leprosy patients similar to today's treatment of SARS and AIDS patients? How is it different?

4. What does 'ohana mean? How does it manifest itself throughout Rachel's life?

5. What does surfing represent to Rachel?

6. Rachel's mother Dorothy embraced Christianity; her adopted auntie, Haleola, is a believer in the old Hawaiian religion. What does Rachel believe in?

7. There are many men in Rachel's life—her father Henry, her Uncle Pono, her first lover Nahoa, her would-be lover Jake, her husband Kenji. What do they have in common? What don't they?

8. Rachel's full name is Rachel Aouli Kalama Utagawa. What does each of her names represent?

9. Did you as a reader regard Leilani as a man or a woman?

10. Discuss the parallels and inversions between the tale of heroic mythology Rachel relates on pages 296-298, and what happens to Kenji later in this chapter.

11. Imagine yourself in the place of Rachel's mother, Dorothy Kalama. How would you have handled the situation?

12. The novel tells us a little, but not all, of what Sarah Kalama feels after her accidental betrayal of her sister Rachel. Imagine what kind of feelings, and personal growth, she might have gone through in the decades following this incident.

13. In what ways is Ruth like her biological mother? How do you envision her relationship with Rachel evolving and maturing in the twenty years between 1948 and 1970?

14. Considering the United States' role in the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, was the American response adequate or not? In recent years a "Hawaiian sovereignty" movement has gathered momentum in the islands—do you feel they have a moral and/or legal case?

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Moloka'i 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 539 reviews.
LCH47 More than 1 year ago
This is a beautifully written, well-researched work of historical fiction. With its well-developed, rich characters, I found myself totally immersed in the story of Rachel and the life that she managed to endure and her valiant attempt at staying grounded. The narrative is quite descriptive and I found myself intrigued by the workings of the leper colony and its advancement over the years. This is a beautifully written story of the resilience of the human spirit and its will to triumph in even the most horrifying of circumstances. The setting is exotic, interesting, informative and exciting. There is an underlying message of hope, kindness and endurance that refreshes and inspires. A TRULY WORTHWHILE READ! I ENJOYED EVERY WORD!
Hilarie413 More than 1 year ago
Molokai'i was suggested as a possible title for my small, online book club by my daughter, who had just returned from her honeymoon in Hawai'i. We all agreed that it was undoubtedly the best book we had read in the year that the club had existed. Most of the participants knew little more about the dread disease of leprosy than the fact that a leper colony existed somewhere in the Hawai'ian islands. It is our practice to have a leader for each book. Research online was shared, and we were given a briefing on the unfamiliar subject.

This novel, seen through the eyes of a young Hawai'ian girl, takes us through her life, from young childhood to adulthood, and eventually old age. Throughout her story, we meet many people and begin to get a keen picture as to the disgust, fear and loathing perpetrated on anyone even suspected of having the disease. Those diagnosed are subject to banishment, and the relinquishing of their normal lives to find a new one on Molokai'i.

This book is both touching and heart-rending. I found it hard to tear myself away from Rachel's story, but didn't want to read it too quickly, so it wouldn't end. Alan Brennert permits us to see life through Rachel's eyes; she deals with love, death, hate, self-loathing and a myriad of other emotions that he allows the character to share with us. We suffer with her in her sorrows, and we are elated for her when she finds joy, and eventually peace.

This book goes onto my list of best-loved books. My whole club felt the same way. Oftentimes, a book, well-enjoyed during the read, fades away from memory. Molokai'i is one of those books that so impacts the reader, that it makes other writing pale by comparison.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was told not to read this on the airplane. So much emotion, I was looking around to see if anyone saw the tears rolling down my face. By far the best book I have read this year. Lots of love, compassion and history. Couldn't put it down. The strength of this girl was overwhelming.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is another fine novel from Mr. Brennert. Extremely well researched this story brings you into the life of a leprosy exhile of that time. Initially I avoided this book thinking it would be too sad to read. On the contrary the sheer spirit of the main character, and most of those around her, kept the story interesting and engaging. I highly recommend this book to everyone, but particularly to those interested in Hawaii.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I did not want to put it down! I was drawn into this thought-provoking story from the first chapter. It's been many years since a book brought such an emotional response from me. The tears flowed freely, along with the laughter. Beautiful, expressive writing brought my trip to Hawaii back to mind, making me feel more a part of the story. The characters are well thoughtout and weave through the story well. My only regret is that too much of the story line was given away on the back cover (and in some reviews here). I almost didn't choose this book, thinking it would be totally depressing. But I'm so glad I overlooked that - what an adventure!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Although this book was interesting, it seemed to go on and on and on. There were several times I thought it would be a good time to end the book, but it just kept going. Usually I love to read long books, but this had way too many insignificant sub-stories that didn't contribute to the central plot. I learned a lot, however there are also aspects of the book that were not quite correct. I think the author researched a lot about leprosy to write this book, but forgot to research everything else.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Moloka'i was one of the most intriguing books that I have read in a long time. A work of fiction, it was intertwined with non fiction characters and real historical events, making it so believable. Moloka'i is a story about isolation, and friendships. This story spoke of so many relationships formed and destroyed by a hideous, deforming disease which brought shame to the families of its' victims. You witness the unselfish sacrifices that only a mothers' love could transcend. Well written, the author allowed you to feel personally involved with the characters. There are many great topics to provoke great discussions, for book clubs!
DeDeFlowers More than 1 year ago
I thought this book was incredibly depressing... As it should be, considering it's about leprosy. However, Brennert decided while writing it to not make anything just happy. There is nothing uplifting about Moloka'i. My second complaint is how fast time moves in this book. It spans over 70 years in less than 400 pages. This means you hardly get to know any of the characters and you get only a sad overview of what is happening. It would have been much better if it focused on just a few years of Rachel's life. The books I recommended are amazing novels that are very depressing.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was very disappointed in this book. It came highly recommended. I believe the author researched it well and, from a historical viewpoint, it was interesting. But the story got bogged down and I realized after plodding through a couple of hundred pages that I didn't care about the characters. Kiss of death for me, so I didn't finish it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A tragic tale embroidered with exquisite detail reflecting careful research, Moloka¿i sets the standard for historical fiction set in Hawai¿i. To take a subject like the isolation of people with Hansen¿s disease, as black a mark in American history as the internment of Japanese families during WWII, and make it an engaging, even romantic encounter is a unique literary accomplishment. We care about the young Hawaiian girl taken from her family and hidden away from prying eyes for almost her entire life. We chafe with her as her youth and beauty fades and the hideous disease progresses in her body. We recoil in horror when she has to give up her baby so her child will not become infected with the yet misunderstood disease. Our hearts break when her husband, the only happiness she has been allowed in this prison of isolation, dies. But, we are lifted high when she finally is freed and able to find her adult daughter. Alan Brennert does a masterful job imparting nuances of the Hawaiian culture and his descriptive powers capture the spell of the Islands. That the postcard perfect jutting green pali of Kalapaupapa on Moloka¿i served as a prison for hundreds of native Hawaiians is something that should not be forgotten. LindaBallou-Author Wai-nani, High Chiefess of Hawai¿i-Her Epic Journey
Bookworm1951 More than 1 year ago
Wonderful!! An epic story of one woman's journey and all those that touched her life. A tale of heartbreak and ultimate triumph. Beautifully written. Great story telling. Highly recommend this book.
MdmeSora More than 1 year ago
This book has everything. memorable characters, life lessons, history, good story, happiness sadness. It is a beautiful book. One that should be made into a movie but for the fact that most of the characters are lepers. If you know anyone who is going to visit molokai they should read this book...... Like all great books it makes you see a whole new side to the world......
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The idea of reading about a leper colony wasn't overly appealing to me, but it came highly recommended. So I gave it a go and was so happy I did! The story is suprisingly uplifting and well written. If you enjoy historical fiction, I think you'll really like Moloka'i!
Harriett More than 1 year ago
This moving, memorable, historical book is one of the best I have ever read. You will be mesmorized. It is hard to believe this is how things were handled "back in the day" but Brennert will grab you early on and keep you fascinated 'til the end. Absolutely loved this book and have given it to many people. It was hard to find a few years ago and I always had to order it, but now B & N has it. Great!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Based on true history, and real events, Brennert skillfully weaves a tale of poignancy and heartbreak through the main character of spirited Rachel who contracts leprosy and is sent to the quarantined island of Moloka'i. Most people are sent to Moloka'i to die, but it is here that Rachel lives. She thrives in spite of the pain and suffering that she is dealt. It is in Moloka'i that her life gains true meaning. A beautiful and engrossing story.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read this book in 3 days. I started reading this book on a plane while traveling. I couldn't stop traveling. I felt a deep connection with the characters. It was an amazing book. The author made the story come to life. It is truly a must read!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Please read this book. This book represents a frail forgotten piece of American history that was almost lost to the hands of time. The characters in Moloka'i have flesh and blood and truly command a multitude of emotions.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is an amazing story. It's not just about leprosy, it's about a little girl and the world she knew and lost. It's about the new life that is forced upon her and how she takes a desperate situation and makes it her own. Living the only way she can. This story is tragic amd inspiring. I cried and I laughed. This is an amazing story that totally transports you into a new world.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Moloka¿i, written by Alan Brennert, takes place in the late 19th century on the islands of Hawaii. It is a moving story about a spirited girl of 7, Rachel Kalama, the youngest daughter in a loving family that adores her. When her mother discovers a small leprous sore on her leg, their lives are turned upside down and Rachel was taken away to a leper treatment center. If after rigorous testing and treatment there were no signs of improvement, the lepers were sent to the island of Moloka¿i to live. The people of Kalaupapa endured more than any human should ever have to. This is the story of how the human spirit can triumph in the face of disaster and adversity. br Rachel thought that going to Moloka¿i would be the end of her life, but it turned out to be just the beginning. Even though she loses most of her family, she finds a new `ohana. Through her journey of life, she meets wonderful people, including my favorite, Sister Catherine. As Rachel deals with her problems, Sister Catherine must also deal with her own personal tribulations and doubts of 'Why does God give children leprosy?¿ As Rachel must make a new life for herself she meets a fellow leper with a dark secret and a caring Nisei man that she ends up marrying. She gives birth to a daughter but government mandated that children of leprous patients must be given up and put up for adoption. Rachel¿s leprosy does not affect her as much as that of the other patients but throughout the decades of the book, we weep with Rachel as her friends die and we cheer for her when she is able to fulfill some of her dreams. br Brennert weaves an amazing picture for his readers. He intertwines history with his strongly developed characters. By the end of the novel these people weren¿t just characters in a book, but people I considered good friends because they were so brilliantly displayed by the author. Even though you learn so much about the history of Hawai¿i, leprosy, and events that took place during this time period, it doesn¿t read like a history book. It is also amazing that this was written by a ha¿ole man because he accurately captured the complexity of female emotions and relationships and the Hawaiian culture. br You will fall in love with Rachel and be drawn into the world that she is forced to live in. And even though the story is sad, the simple beauty of Rachel's life, her will to enjoy her existence, her losses and her loves, will leave you mesmerized. It is engaging from the very begging and you won¿t want to put it down.
Guest More than 1 year ago
thank goodness for teachers! my teacher one day lectured me saying i dont read enough. so one day she took me to the library to check out a book. there i seen MOLOKA'I on the shelf and grabbed it so i could make her happy and be on my merry way. little did i know that in the palms of my hands laid a book that i wouldnt put down for the next four days. this book is sad, fun, exciting, and just sensational. i recommend this to everyone!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have to admit that I often pick books because of their cover and this was one of those that has a highly attractive cover. I was also intrigued by a historical area I knew nothing about. I was not disappointed with this book. WOW! The story covers the life of a young Hawaiin girl spending her life out on the island of Moloka'i in a leper colony. The book was well researched bringing historical events/medicine/policy into the story. I recommended it to a friend for her bookclub and it received high reviews from everyone 'even from the gal that doesn't like anything.' I have a list of a few books that I always recommend to people and this book is definitely on the list.'
Guest More than 1 year ago
I picked this book up because of the title and the beautiful cover. I am in love with Hawaii and as I read this, I felt as if I was back on the islands. The detail of this book was phenomenal and kept me glued to the book from beginning to the end. I could not wait to see where the characters ended within the story.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am a reader who absolutely has to be sucked in right away, and sad to say, I did judge this book by its cover and I fell inlove with the thought of being lost in a story set in Hawaii. Thank God the cover caught my attention because this book will simply transport you in to the shoes of Rachel. From the first page you get an insight to a normal little girl's life and BAM before you know it, you are searching for the closest thing to blow your nose on, so you dont have to get up and put the book down. I finished this book in about one weeks time 'and I'm not your most best reader' but with its page-turning story line... how can anyone not finish this book just to see what happens to the main character. The detail of the characters and their personalities is full of imagery. Please if you can read, pick this book up. You will NOT be dissapointed!!!!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
A five-star achievement! Once I started reading the story of Rachel Kalama, I could not put the book down. The depth and feeling expressed had me tearing up periodically throughout. Sentimental in the feeling of family and friends-as-family without being corny or maudlin. What I think I like the best was the sense that you could grasp the spirituality and physical presence of Hawaii, making you feel as though you were right there. The next time I go to Hawaii will definetely include a visit to Molokai.
Guest More than 1 year ago
When I heard this novel is set in the Moloka'i leper colony, I thought what you're thinking. But a friend was raving about it, then 'The Washington Post,' so I decided to give it a try. Boy, am I glad I did! Don't think 'leper colony,' think 'Forrest Gump' or Helen Keller's life story or 'Rudy.' Moloka'i' is the story of an Everylittlegirl who doesn't let circumstances get in her way of living life to the fullest. This is one of those (for me) rare novels you can't put down because you've got to know what happens next. Kudos to Alan Brennert for pulling off the impossible! It reads like a movie!