Sometimes I’ll buy a book that has garnered wildly positive acclaim and I’ll open the first page expecting to be blown away by sheer brilliance. I opened Moloka’i by Alan Brennert thinking this because the reviews had been so glowing and it was chosen as San Diego’s One Book, One San Diego for 2012.
And it was brilliant, no doubt about it, but not for the usual reasons. The brilliance is in the steady understatement and utter subtlety. The first chapter drew me in, but not as a hostage, as many bestsellers will do. The drawing in was skillfully gradual, from chapter to chapter, until I was hooked into the very life of a young leper girl named Rachel. I didn’t realize I was chained until I heard a rattling when I reached up to flick a tear away. That’s how good it was.
If you know anything about the island of Molokai you know it was the turn-of-the-century Hawaiian colony for those diagnosed with the nightmare disease known as leprosy. In this story, Rachel is just a child when a sore that won’t heal rips her away from her family and deposits her on an island of exiles few ever leave. Her story isn’t a tale about disease, but rather the resiliency of the human spirit. And it is a compelling tale, to say the least.
I was reminded in the reading of other books that have met me in a deeply emotional place while instructing me on historical events I knew precious little about, such as Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, The Kite Runner,and Sarah’s Key. Books like these haunt you, a meaningful way, after you are done with them because of what they have taught you. Gems like these appear in the pages of Moloka’i:
“God didn’t give man wings; He gave him the brain and the spirit to give himself wings. Just as He gave us the capacity to laugh when we hurt, or to struggle on when we feel like giving up. I’ve come to believe that how we choose to live with pain, or injustice, or death…is the true measure of the Divine within us. Some … choose to do harm to themselves and others. Others … bear up under their pain and help others to bear it.”
And this one:
“Fear is good. In the right degree it prevents us from making fools of ourselves. But in the wrong measure it prevents us from fully living. Fear is our boon companion but never our master.”
Novel-reading is my escape from novel-writing but I often can’t help but begin to ease back into writer mode when I am reading one. Not so with this one. I was a passenger the entire time.
Make that student.
p.s. You can read an interview with the author right here: