I admit it. Alan Brennert's debut 2003 novel, Moloka'i, is the one book that made me cry.
When her mother discovers the tell-tale sores of leprosy on 5 year-old Rachel Kalama's legs, she tries to hide them under long skirts and white lies. But a school-yard argument with her big sister exposes Rachel's secret. The little girl is first sent to quarantine hospital in Honolulu and eventually becomes one of the first settlers on the Kalaupapa peninsula on Moloka’i. Left to fend for themselves, the patients are treated more like inmates, denied family contact and even the most basic of supplies. Despite the odds, they carve a life out of the barren windswept rock that is Kalaupapa with little more than their bare hands and debris washed up onto the beach.
Despite the sometimes barbaric treatment of the island’s patients by the medical authorities and the Catholic church charged with running the leper hospital, the residents create a real community. Rachel Kalama’s brave and resilient spirit sings out in this poignant and touching novel.
Brennert uses the true story of the leper colony on Moloka’i along with his wonderfully rich gift of character to bring us to tears as we read about the residents of Kalaupapa, the last of whom still live there today.