This mesmerizing novel explores a world I'd never heard about, let alone read about until I picked up this incredible book. It's the story of Rachel Kalama, who is only seven in 1891 when she contracts leprosy, a Western disease that is slowly stealing the citizens of her beloved Honolulu. Although the Kalamas try to hide Rachel's secret, her sister carelessly blurts out the truth during a playground spat. Soon, the dreaded health inspector finds her and carts Rachel off to a hospital for lepers. Although she prays that she will be able to return home, Rachel soon finds herself en route to Kalaupapa, a leprosy settlement on the dreaded island of Moloka'i.
Moloka'i is synonomous with death, but Rachel finds a surprisingly vibrant community there. Despite the residents' horrifying disfigurements, she discovers that they are only people, both cruel and kind, saintly and wicked. Isolated from her home and family, Rachel longs to leave the strange society, to live again with her family, to travel to faraway places. This seems an impossible dream, but Rachel finds that her form of leprosy is slow moving and responsive to new treatments. In the meantime, she has found happiness in her new husband, Kenji, and her many friends. Her bliss is short-lived, however. She soon finds that she is pregnant, an event that would ordinarily bring her great joy. But not on Moloka'i, where babies are whisked away from parents to avoid contamination. Thus, Rachel's daughter is stolen from her arms and placed in an orphanage. When a tragic event further robs Rachel, she becomes even more insistent on fighting her disease and leaving Moloka'i. Finally, when she is stooped with age and marked with leprous sores, she is proclaimed fit. Immediately, she heads for Honolulu to find her family, especially her long-lost daughter. Back in her hometown, Rachel begins to realize how much has changed, and how little. Discrimination is ever-present, even from members of her own family. As determined as ever, Rachel seeks out her past, quaking with fear that her loved ones will never be part of her future.
Summarizing this novel robs it of its incredible depth, so I will stop here and say that you simply have to read this book. It is expansive and beautiful. The novel's sad history will haunt you, but its characters will delight you. This is a book that is impossible to put down or forget.