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Saturday, January 23, 2021

Middle Grade Historical Offers a Vivid, Heart-wrenching Portrayal of Life in a Leper Colony

(Image from author's website)

Culion Island is a lush Filipino paradise boasting sparkling blue water, sweet-smelling flowers, trees hanging with ripe fruit, and a peaceful quiet.  It should be overrun with eager beachgoers.  But, high on a cliff, an eagle made of white flowers warns outsiders to keep away from Culion.  It's a one-way island; people can come, but no one ever leaves.  Those who are "touched" with leprosy are brought to Culion to keep them isolated while their bodies slowly deteriorate and die from the contagious disease.  

Amihan "Ami" Tala was born on Culion after her pregnant mother was diagnosed with leprosy and brought to the island.  Although the 12-year-old is herself untouched, the leper colony is her home—everything she's ever known and loved.  She has no desire to leave.  When Narciso Zamora, a sneering government official, comes to Culion to enforce new segregation laws, which will force the "clean" away from the "unclean," everyone is shocked.  Not only will many new sufferers be brought to the island, but the untouched children will be forced to leave.  Although the policy is supposed to be for the children's benefit, Ami cannot see how being taken from her mother and their tight-knit community could possibly be a good thing.  

With little choice in the matter, Ami is sent to an orphanage on nearby (but not near enough) Coron Island.  Subject to Mr. Zamora's cruelty and teasing from the other children, Ami knows she can't stay.  Together with a new friend, she vows to return to her home, no matter what it takes.  Can she get back to Culion safely?  With her mother's health declining rapidly, will Ami make it home in time?  Will she be allowed to stay?

I'm familiar with Moloka'i, Hawaii's famous leper colony, but I had never heard of Culion before, even though it held the largest leprosarium in the world for decades, starting in about 1906.  In The Island at the End of Everything, Kiran Millwood Hargrave brings the place to vivid life.  Through the eyes of Ami, she helps readers see and understand what it must have been like for Culion's residents when the government began enforcing divisive policies that separated spouses, families, and friends.  The tension makes for an intriguing but heartbreaking story.  Ami is a sympathetic heroine for whom it's easy to root.  Her story is filled with terror, adventure, and suspense, which keeps The Island at the End of Everything from getting dull.  In fact, the novel is compelling as well as poignant and hopeful.  While the ending is predictable, I still very much enjoyed this insightful middle grade novel.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of Moloka'i by Alan Brennert)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for violence, disturbing subject matter, and scenes of peril

To the FTC, with love:  I bought a copy of The Island at the End of Everything with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger.  Ha ha.

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