Molokai by Alan Brennert 

Emily B has become a bit of a pen pal while I’ve been away and the conversation recently turned to literature.  She said she would like to send me something to read.  I took her up on the offer and asked her to send a note as well, letting me know why she chose the book she did and what it meant to her.  She wrote an endearing and thoughtful response that set the tone for the time I spent enjoying this story.

Molokai is an historical non-fiction set in Hawaii from the late 1800’s to 1950’s and focuses on the lives of those suffering from leprosy.  Again with the perspective…Covid is a breeze compared to what those who contracted leprosy went through.  It also made me look at how we treat people who are ill.  What about a friend with a cold and a hacking cough all the way up to a patient with HIV?  How do we, as a society, treat people who are sick and develop irrational thoughts surrounding contagions and the transmission of diseases?

It was a constant battle for those with leprosy – socially and physically.  Whether the disease attacked them neurologically or dermatologically, patients were torn away from their community and shipped off to Molokai, an island between Oahu and Maui where anyone with leprosy was required to live out the rest of their life.  Or until the disease went into remission, which was exceedingly rare and left them deformed and struggling to reintegrate into society.  This is a story not only of survival, but of thriving while acknowledging inescapable pain.

There are a number of inmates at Yankton from Hawaii and it was eye-opening talking with them about this time in history and the stories their grandparents told them.  While none of these guys were alive in the fifties they were all familiar with the struggles of leprosy and one had traveled to Molokai.  Family’s were torn apart, visiting was highly restrictive and prohibitively expensive, and the scientific data to back up the isolation was lacking.

The book does a gorgeous job highlighting the culture, nature, paganism and old religions of that period in Hawaii.  I read this while we were in the National Lockdown and would stay up fairly late reading.  One night I had a vivid dream I was in Hawaii, on Molokai.  At first, I was happy to be in Hawaii, then I realized the predicament I found myself in.  There will come a date and I will leave Yankton at that time.  Everyone on Molokai didn’t have that level of certainty, there wasn’t that light at the end of the tunnel for them.  They built a community of outcasts and lived the best they could.  This was a beautiful read.  Thank you, Emily!

Share this post