In late 19th century Honolulu, Rachel Kalama is only seven years old when she develops leprosy. It starts out as just a pink spot on her leg, but as soon as authorities spot it, she is examined and exiled to the leper colony on Moloka’i. Even though her beloved Uncle Pons is already on the island, she is not allowed to stay with him but must live in the girls’ dormitory at least until she is 16. The facilities on the island are primitive and the rules rigid. She is the youngest resident of the island. It’s tough for a little girl.
Although Rachel’s father Henry writes regularly to her from his travels as a seaman, she soon has her letters to her mother returned to her. She never sees her mother again. The novel tells the story of Rachel’s life from the time she is admitted to the colony until she is an older woman.
I have to admit that I hesitated to read a novel about lepers, thinking it might be too gruesome. But Rachel’s story isn’t depressing. Aside from lightly covering a great deal of the recent history of Hawaii, beginning with the deposing of the queen by the United States, the novel depicts a life in a tough environment that slowly becomes a community. If anything, at times the novel seems to depict a rosier environment than seems possible.
Owing to lack of characterization and the prevalence of description versus action and dialogue, I was not captured by this novel until almost the end. I was interested to see what would happen, but I didn’t find the characters very involving. Still, I found the end of the novel touching, and I enjoyed learning about the history and customs of Hawaii.