Rachel Kalama is a spirited seven-year-old Hawaiian girl, growing up in Honolulu in 1893. She dreams of visiting distant lands like her father, a merchant seaman. But after a rose-colored mark appears on her skin, those dreams are forever stolen from her.
Torn from her home and family, Rachel is sent to Kalaupapa, the quarantined leprosy settlement on the beautiful island of Moloka’i where her life is supposed to end. But for little Rachel, life is only just beginning.
Moloka’i is a work of fiction based upon the actual history of a group of resilient people who embraced life in the face of death.
Moloka’i is the fifth-largest of the islands that make up the Hawaiian Island Chain. It is known as “The Friendly Isle,” a perhaps ironic moniker for an island that housed a leper colony for more than one hundred years. Moloka’i was discovered by explorers in the late eighteenth century. Traders, sailors, and laborers introduced diseases against which the indigenous population had no immunity, including smallpox, cholera, and leprosy. Because leprosy was believed to be highly contagious and there was no known cure, the government declared that anyone diagnosed with the disease would be quarantined on the island. A leper colony at Kalaupapa operated from 1866 to 1969, an offshoot from the colony originally established at Kalawao. (Kalaupapa provided better sea access and has a milder climate.)
In total, more than 8,500 men, women, and children, diagnosed with leprosy (“the separating disease”) were declared “unclean,” forcibly removed from their homes and families, and forced to reside on Moloaka’i. The Hawaiian government actually declared them dead, and they were not permitted to leave the island unless it was established through a series of tests that the disease was dormant. Even then, however, release was conditioned upon ongoing testing. If the disease was found to again be active, the patient would be returned to the colony on Moloka’i. Babies born on Moloka’i to leprosy patients were immediately separated from the parents, who were permitted to visit their child twice weekly through glass during a one-year observation period. If, after one year, the child showed no symptoms of the disease, the parents could hanai him/her (give the child to relatives to raise). However, if no family members were willing to take the child in, he/she was placed in the Kapi’olani Home in Honolulu and made available for adoption.
Against that historical backdrop, author Alan Brennert has created a haunting story populated with unforgettable character,nearly every aspect of which is based in fact. Stated simply, Moloka’i is a beautifully told saga in which Brennert’s love of Hawaii is fully on display. About that, he says, “I love Hawaii. The first time I set foot there . . . I felt as if I were coming home. The place and the people have drawn me back year after year, and the history of the Hawaiian people is one that holds a special fascination for me.” Moloka’i based upon Brennert’s meticulous research from which he weaves his fictional story around not just actual events and facts. About three years after visiting Molokai for the first time in 1996, Brennert began reading about Kalaupapa and its history. “The more I read, the more I came to realize that here was a compelling, true-life story that had never fully been told before,” he relates. He was right.
I wanted to do right by these people who have been largely forgotten by history–I wanted to present their story as no one else has.” ~ Author Alan Brennert
Moloka’i focuses upon Rachel (at that time, all Hawaiian children were required to be given Christian names) who, at the age of seven, is ripped away from her parents, sister, and brothers, and the happy life she knew in Honolulu. Her Uncle Pono had already been exiled to Moloka’i, but Rachel is forced to live in the girl’s home operated by Catholic nuns. Rachel’s adjustment to her new life is difficult, and only her father remains in contact with her. But over time, Rachel develops deep friendships with the other girls, as well as Sister Catherine, a nun who is dedicated to her work with the girls but battles demons of her own. Nonetheless, Rachel’s longing for her family back on Oahu and the prospect of returning to a normal life never abates. But as the years pass, and the disease remains active, prohibiting her release, she draws strength from her fellow patients, Sister Catherine, and Haleola, the woman with whom her uncle lives who becomes like a mother (makuahine) to Rachel. She finds an ohana (family) on the island. Rachel is also buoyed by the beauty that surrounds her, taking comfort and solace from the waves that crash on the shore, as well as her Hawaiian heritage. Rachel’s mother had been converted to Christianity and discouraged her children from fully embracing Hawaiian spiritual beliefs and practices. But on Moloka’i, Rachel develops a deeper appreciation of the wisdom of her ancestors and the religion they practiced.
“I’ll tell you what I believe in,” she said. “I believe in the ‘aina — the land and the sea and the air around us. When our ancestors first saw the fury of the surf or the angry fire spitting from volcanoes, they saw that there was a power to these things that they could not explain. They knew they had mana — power. And they do. Can you look at the beauty around us, Aouli, and doubt that there is mana in this crater, and in the land and sea and sky that surround it?”
“No land is more beautiful,” Haleola said, “and therefore more powerful. That is what I believe in, Aouli. I believe in Hawai’i. I believe in the land.” ~ Haleola in Moloka’i
Rachel becomes a beautiful, determined woman and finds love with Kenji, her Japanese husband whose promising career was terminated on his very first day at work when a bounty hunter reported his leprosy. Brennert details the deep shame visited upon both the patient and his/her family. As Kenji explains it, “[w]hen a Japanese gets leprosy, it disgraces the entire lineage for all time. It’s written into the Yakuba, a neighborhood archive for family histories—a black mark that can never be erased. The family with leprosy is shunned, no one wants to marry into it.” Many families never again had contact with their family member on Moloka’i and moved away in an attempt to escape the ostracism and discrimination they experienced. When Kenji and Rachel meet, Kenji has just arrived on Moloka’i, and he is understandably angry, bitter, and depressed. But they bond over their mutual love of books, marry, and have a beautiful daughter with whom they manage to spend only a few hours before she is cruelly taken from them lest one of them infect the child. Rachel and Kenji name their daughter Ruth and visit her twice each week. “A year was an excruciatingly long time to be able to watch, but never hold, a child; to see her smile but never feel her breath on yu; to watch a tiny hand wrap itself around empty air. But Rachel never wanted to touch her baby so much that she would risk seeing a florid blossom on Ruth’s clear skin as a consequence of a year’s contact with her mother.” Because Kenji’s family refuses to hanai Ruth, she is taken to the Kapi’olani Home by Sister Catherine when she is a year old.
Rachel endures other heartbreak as well, in this sweeping story that spans seven decades. Through Rachel’s eyes, Brennert shows readers a world rapidly changing in the twentieth century. Hawaii moves from a monarchy to a U.S. territory, technology advances rapidly, America survives the Great Depression and the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. Through the years, leprosy takes a toll on nearly everyone Rachel loves, as well as Rachel herself. But Rachel endures and in the 1940’s benefits from a cure for leprosy developed from sulfa derivatives. Eventually, she is permitted to return to Honolulu, only to find that the city she remembers no longer exists and even though leprosy has been cured, she is still deemed a leper by society. Undaunted, Rachel is determined to find her beloved daughter.
Brennert details Rachel’s experiences with great compassion. He also educates readers on the beliefs and culture of the Hawaiian people, the sadly true history of Kalaupapa (which is now a National Historical Park), and the suffering of the real Hawaiians who, like the fictional Rachel, were ripped from their homes and families when they displayed symptoms of the disease.
Brennert says he “wanted to tell the story of ordinary people who had to make such heartbreaking sacrifice . . .” but his focus is not on his characters’ suffering. Rather, Moloka’i is an exploration of their strength, resilience, and determination to live meaningful lives despite their circumstances. Moloka’i is a deeply moving story that will resonate with and haunt readers long after they finish reading the book. Brennert’s tale is a celebration of Hawaii’s beauty, spirituality, traditions, the true meaning of living “aloha,” and provides insight into precisely why Hawaii is commonly referred to simply as “paradise.” As Haleola puts it, “No land is more beautiful and therefore more powerful.”
Molokai will make readers believe in Hawaii and deserves my highest recommendation.
Excerpt from Moloka’i
Later, when memory was all she had to sustain her, she would come to cherish it: Old Honolulu as it was then, as it would never be again. To a visitor it must have seemed a lush garden of fanciful hybrids: a Florentine-style palace shaded by banyan and monkeypod trees; wooden storefronts flourishing on dusty streets, cuttings from America’s Old West; tall New England church steeples blooming above the palm and coconut groves. To a visitor it must have seemed at once exotic and familiar; to five-year-old Rachel it was a playground, and it was home.
Certain things stood out in memory, she couldn’t say why: the weight and feel of a five-cent hapa’umi coin in her pocket; the taste of cold Tahiti lemonade on a hot day; palm fronds rustling like locusts high above, as she and her brothers played among the rice paddies and fishponds of Waikiki. She remembered taking a swim, much to her mother’s dismay, in the broad canals of Kapi’olani Park; she could still feel the mossy bottom, the slippery stones beneath her feet. She remembered riding the trolley cars with her sister up King Street–the two of them squeezed in amidst passengers carrying everything from squid to pigs, chickens to Chinese laundry–mules and horses exuberantly defecating as they dragged the tram along in their wake. Rachel’s eyes popped at the size of the turds, longer than her arm, and she giggled when the trolley’s wheels squished them underneath.
But most of all, most clearly of all, she remembered Steamer Day–because that was when her father came home.
Is today Steamer Day?”
“No.” Rachel’s mother handed her a freshly cooked taro root. “Here. Peel.”
Rachel nimbly stripped off the soft purple skin, taking care not to bruise the stem itself, and looked hopefully at her mother. “Is tomorrow Steamer Day?”
Dorothy Kalama, stern-faced at the best of times, shot her daughter an exasperated look. “How do I know? I’m standing lookout on Koko Head, that’s where you think I am?” With a stone pestle she pounded a slice of peeled taro into a smooth hard paste, then shrugged. “Could be another week, anyway, before he comes.”
“Oh, no, Mama.” They’d received a letter from Papa exactly five weeks ago, mailed in Samoa, informing them he’d be leaving for home in a month; and Rachel knew for a fact that the crossing took no more than a week. “Two thousand, two hundred and ninety miles from Samoa to Honolulu,” she announced proudly.
Her mother regarded her skeptically. “You know how big is a mile?”
Rachel thought a moment, her round chubby face sober in reflection, then stretched her arms as wide as she could. Dorothy laughed, but before she could respond there was an explosion of boy-noise from outside.
“I hate you! Go ‘way!”
“You go ‘way!”
Rachel’s brothers, Benjamin and James–Kimo to everyone but Mama, who disapproved of all but Christian names–roughhoused their way up the front steps and into the house. The sparsely furnished wood-frame home was nearly one large open room: living and dining areas on one side, stove, sink, and cupboards on the other; a tiny corridor led to a triad of tiny bedrooms. Pummeling each other with pulled punches, the boys skidded across a big mat woven from pandanus leaves, Kimo’s legs briefly akimbo, like a wishbone in mid-wish.
“You’re a big bully!” Ben accused Kimo.
“You’re a big baby!” Kimo accused Ben.
Dorothy scooped up two wet handfuls of taro skin and lobbed them at her sons. In moments the boys were sputtering out damp strips of purple taro as Dorothy stood before them, hands on hips, brown eyes blazing righteously.
“What’s wrong with you! Fighting on the Sabbath! Now clean your faces and get ready for church, or else!”
“Kimo started it!”
“God don’t care who started it! All He cares about is that somebody’s making trouble on His day!”
Dorothy hefted another handful of taro skin, and as if by kahuna sorcery the boys vanished without another cross word into their shared bedroom.
“I’m done, Mama.” Rachel handed the peeled taro to her mother, who eyed it approvingly. “Well now,” Dorothy said, face softening, “that’s a good job you did.” She cut the taro into smaller pieces, pounded them into paste, then added just the right amount of water to it. “You want to mix?” she asked Rachel, whose small hands dove eagerly into the smooth paste and kneaded it–with a little help from her mother–until, wondrously, it was no longer mere taro but delicious poi.
“Mama, these shoes are too tight!” Rachel’s sister Sarah, two years older, thumped into the room in a white cotton dress with black stockings, affecting a hobble as she pointed at her black leather buttontop shoes. “I can’t feel my toes.” She saw Rachel’s fingers sticky with poi and reflexively made a sour face. “That looks lumpy.”
Dorothy gave her a scowl. “Your head’s lumpy. Rachel did a fine job, didn’t she?” She tousled Rachel’s long black hair; Rachel beamed and shot Sarah a look that said ha! Dorothy turned back to Sarah. “No sandals in church. Guess your toes just gonna fall off. And go get your hat!” Her hobble miraculously healed, Sarah sprinted away, though not without a parting grimace at her sister, who was enthusiastically licking the poi off her fingers.
It was a half-mile’s walk to Kaumakapili Church, made even longer by the necessity of shoes, and Dorothy did not fail to remind her children–she never failed to remind them–how fortunate they were to worship at such a beautiful new church, opened just three years before. Its twin wooden spires–”the better to find God,” the king had declared upon their completion–towered like huge javelins above their nearest neighbors. The spires were mirrored in the waters of nearby Nu’uanu Stream, and to the devout it might appear as though they were pointing not just at heaven but, defiantly, at hell as well, as though challenging Satan in his own domain.
As Dorothy joined with the congregation in singing “Rock of Ages,” her children sat, in varying degrees of piety, in Sabbath School. In her kindergarten class Rachel drew Bible scenes with colored crayons, then listened attentively to her teacher, Mr. MacReedy, a veteran of the American Civil War with silvered hair and a shuffle in his walk courtesy of a round of grapeshot to his right foot.
“‘And in the fourth watch of the night,’ ” Mr. MacReedy recited from the Book of Matthew, ” ‘Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea. And when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they–’ ”
He saw that Rachel’s hand was bobbing in the air. “Yes? Rachel?”
Soberly, Rachel asked, “Which sea?”
Her teacher blinked. “What?”
“Which sea did he walk on?”
“Ah . . . well . . .” He scanned the page, vexedly. “It don’t say.”
“Was it the Pacific?”
“No, I reckon it wasn’t.”
“It don’t matter, child. What’s important is that he was walking on the sea, not which particular sea it was.”
“Oh.” Rachel was disappointed. “I just wondered.”
Mr. MacReedy continued, telling them of how Jesus bade Peter to walk onto the water with him; how He then went to a new land; and how, “when the men of that place had knowledge of him, they sent out into all that country round about, and brought unto him all that were diseased; And besought him that they might only touch the hem of his garment: and as many as touched were made whole.
“‘Then Jesus went thence, and departed into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a woman of Canaan came out of–'”
Rachel’s hand shot up again.
Her teacher sighed. “Yes, Rachel,” he said wearily.
“Where’s Tyre? And–Sidon?”
Mr. MacReedy took off his reading glasses.
“They were cities. Someplace in the Holy Land. And before you ask, ‘Canaan’ was an old name for Palestine, or parts of it, anyway. That good enough for you, child?”
Rachel nodded. Her teacher replaced his glasses and continued chronicling Jesus’ sojourn. ” ‘And Jesus departed thence, and came nigh unto the sea of Galilee . . . ‘ ”
Mr. MacReedy paused, peered over his glasses at Rachel and said, “I would infer, if anyone’s interested, that this is the selfsame sea the Lord walked on a bit earlier.”
After church came Rachel’s favorite part of the day, when Mama stopped at Love’s Bakery on Nu’uanu Avenue to buy fresh milk bread, baked that morning. Love’s was a cathedral of sugar, a holy place of sweets and starches: pound cake, seedcake, biscuits, Jenny Lind cake, soda crackers, cupcakes. Sometimes the owner, Fanny Love, was there to greet customers; sometimes it was her eldest son James, who with a wink and a smile would slip Rachel a cookie or a slice of nutcake and announce, “You’re the twenty-eighth customer today; here’s your prize!”
Sometimes Mama would buy day-old bread rather than fresh, or as now, try to haggle some leftover New Year’s cake for a few pennies less. Even at her age Rachel understood money was often a problem in her family, and though she rarely wanted for anything of substance she knew Mama worked hard to stretch out the money Papa left her; particularly now, eight months after they last saw him.
That night, as every night, Mama stood by Rachel’s bedside and made sure she said her prayers, and Rachel never failed to add one of her own: that God help Papa come safely across the sea, and soon.
Honolulu Harbor was a forest of ship’s masts huddled within encircling coral reefs, a narrow channel threading through the reefs and out to open sea. Unlike picturesque Waikiki to the east–a bright crescent of sand in the lee of majestic Lé’ahi, or “Diamond Head” as the haoles, the white foreigners, had rechristened it–the harbor was an unglamorous collection of cattle wharves, trading companies, saloons, and the occasional brothel. On any given day there might be up to a hundred ships anchored here: barks, schooners, brigantines, cruisers, and more and more, steamers–their squat metal smokestacks proliferating among the wooden masts, an advance guard of the new century. Yet the arrival of a steamship was still exciting enough that whenever one was seen riding the horizon, closed signs sprang up in store windows across the city and men, women, and children thronged toward the harbor to greet the incoming ship.
Rachel, perched on her mother’s shoulders, peered over the heads of the crowd surging around them and thrilled to the sight of the SS Mariposa steaming toward port. A pilot boat met the steamer and guided it through the channel; then as the ships drew closer to shore the Royal Hawaiian Band, which was gathered at pier’s end, struck up the national anthem, “Hawai’i Pono’,” composed by King Kalakaua himself.
As the Mariposa eased into its berth beside a mountain of black coal, Rachel caught sight of a sailor tossing a thick hawser off the deck and onto the dock. He was a stocky Hawaiian in his young thirties, his thick muscled arms tanned by the blistering sun of even lower latitudes. “Papa!” she yelled, waving, but Papa was too busy helping tie up the ship to notice. It was only after all the passengers had disembarked and the cargo was on its way out of the ship’s hold that Rachel at last saw her father walk down the gangway, a duffel bag in one hand, a big weathered suitcase in the other.
Henry Kalama, a happy grin on his broad friendly face, hefted his suitcase as though he were about to throw it. ” ‘Ey! Little girl! Catch!”
Rachel giggled. Henry ran up and Dorothy gave him a reproachful look: “Good-for-nothing rascal, where you been the last eight months?” And she kissed him with a ferocity that quite belied her words.
“Papa!” Rachel was jumping up and down, and now Henry scooped her up in his big arms. ” ‘Ey, there she is. There’s my baby!” He kissed her on the cheek and Rachel wrapped her arms around his thick neck. “I missed you, little girl,” he said in a tone so gentle it made Dorothy want to cry. Then he looked at his wife and added, with exaggerated afterthought, “Oh. You, too.”
“Yeah, yeah, same to you, no-good.” But she didn’t object when Henry kissed her again, still holding Rachel in one arm, the five-year-old making an Eee-uu face. Dorothy lifted her husband’s duffel bag with one hand, slipped the other around his waist, and the three of them started through the crowd, a winch’s chain chattering above them as it yanked an enormous crate into the air.
“You sell the other keiki?” Henry asked, noting the absence of his older children.
“In school. Rachel oughtta be, but–”
“Where’d you go this time, Papa?”
“Oh, all over. One ship went to Japan and China, this one stopped in Australia, New Zealand, Samoa . . .”
“We got your letter from Samoa!”
On short notice Dorothy organized a feast to celebrate Henry’s return. Dorothy’s brother Will brought twenty pounds of fresh skipjack tuna he’d caught in his nets that morning; Henry’s sister Florence made her best haupia pudding, rich with coconut cream; and Rachel helped her mother and Aunt Flo wrap ti leaves around the fresh beef and pork Papa bought at Tinker’s Market, the first meat they had seen in weeks.
Friends and family crowded into the Kalama home that night, laughing and eating, singing and talking story. Rachel sat, as she often did at such gatherings, on the lap of her tall, rangy Uncle Pono–Papa’s older brother, Kapono Kalama, a plantation worker in Waimanalo. ” ‘Ey, there’s my favorite niece!” he would say, hoisting her into his arms. “You married yet?” Rachel soberly shook her head. “Why not?” Pono shot back. “Good-looking girl like you? You gonna be an old maid, you wait much longer!” When Rachel did her best not to laugh at his teasing, Pono resorted to tickling–and as she curled up like a snail in his lap, giggling uncontrollably, he’d say, “See, pretty funny after all, eh?”
Later, Henry’s brood gathered round as he handed out the presents he never neglected to bring home from faraway ports. They were modest gifts, befitting a seaman’s wages, but Papa had uncommonly good taste and always chose something to charm and delight them. Dorothy was presented with a pretty string necklace beaded with dozens of small, imperfectly shaped pearls, each plucked from the ocean floor by native divers in Rarotonga. Sarah was thrilled to receive a pair of silver earrings from New Zealand, though the silver in them probably wouldn’t have filled a tooth. Kimo got a box of Chinese puzzles; Ben, a picture book from Tokyo, and another from Hong Kong.
Rachel knew what Papa had brought her, of course. What he always brought her: a doll from one of the countries he’d visited. Already she had a sakura-ningyš, a “cherry doll” from Japan; a pair of Mission Dolls from China; and a rag baby from America, purchased on Papa’s last trip to San Francisco. What would it be this time? Rachel could hardly contain herself as Papa pulled the last gift box from his suitcase.
“And this one’s for Rachel,” he said, “from Japan.”
Rachel was crestfallen. She already had a Japanese doll! Had Papa forgotten? Trying not to betray her disappointment, she tore the lid off the box, stripping away the tissue paper enfolding the doll. . . .
That is, assuming it was a doll. Rachel stared in confusion at the contents of the box, which appeared to be . . . an egg. A large wooden egg, no neck, a fat body, a bundled scarf and winter clothes painted on–Humpty Dumpty, but with a woman’s face. Hilda Dumpty?
Rachel was surprised at how heavy it was, and entranced by its odd appearance. “What is it?” she asked.
Her father scolded, “But you’re not done opening the present!” He pointed at the egg. “Hold the bottom with one hand, the head with the other. Then pull.”
Rachel did as she was told–then jumped as the egg popped apart, and a second egg fell out! This smaller one resembled a man with a painted-on farmer’s outfit; but when Rachel began examining it her father wagged a finger: “Still not finished!” Rachel pulled apart the second doll to discover yet a third one, a young girl-egg this time.
Everyone laughed at the expression on Rachel’s face as she kept finding littler and littler dolls growing younger and younger, seven in all–the last an infant in painted-on swaddling, made of solid wood.
“They call ’em matryoshka,” Papa explained. “Nesting dolls. From Russia.”
“But you said they were from Japan.”
“I got ’em in Japan. Japan’s next door to Russia. You like?”
Rachel beamed. “They’re beautiful, Papa.”
That night Rachel carefully weighed where to place the nesting dolls on the coffee-crate shelf that held the rest of her collection. Farthest to the left was the cherry doll, a beautiful Kabuki dancer in a green silk kimono, holding a tiny fan. Next to her were the Chinese Mission dolls: a yellow-skinned amah, or nurse, carrying a little yellow baby on her back. And lastly, the rag doll from America, a cuddly infant with a sweet moonlike face, which Rachel sometimes took to bed with her. She remembered then what Papa had said about Japan being “next door” to Russia and she placed the matryoshka beside the Japanese cherry doll, then stepped back to admire her collection.
Behind her, she heard a familiar voice. “She fits right in, eh?”
Rachel turned. Papa was standing in the doorway. “Your Mama says you got to say your prayers and get your sneaky little hide into bed.”
“Sarah’s not in bed yet.”
“She will be after her bath.”
“Will you sing me a song first?” This, too, was old custom between them.
Papa smiled. “Prayers first.”
Rachel hurried through her evening prayer, then eagerly jumped into bed. Papa closed the bedroom door, pulled up a chair beside her, and sat. “So, which one you want to hear?”
Rachel thought for a moment, then announced, ” ‘Whiskey Johnnie.’ ”
Her father glanced furtively toward the closed door, then back to Rachel. “How ’bout ‘Blow the Man Down’?”
” ‘Whiskey Johnnie’!” Rachel insisted.
Papa sighed in surrender. He leaned forward in his chair and in a deliberately low voice began to sing:
“Oh whiskey is the life of man
A Whiskey for my Johnnie.
Oh I’ll drink whiskey whenever I can
Bad whiskey gets me in the can–”
“A Whiskey for my Johnnie!” Rachel joined in. Together they sang two more stanzas, until Rachel burst out giggling and Papa, also laughing, patted her on the hand. “That’s my chantey girl,” he said with a grin. He kissed her on the forehead. “Now go to sleep.”
Rachel’s eyes drooped closed. Snug beneath her woolen blanket, she slept soundly that night–dreaming she was on a schooner plying the sea, bound for the Orient, destined for adventure.
Closer to home, Fort Street School was a big one-story house surrounded by a whitewashed picket fence, arbored by the leafy umbrellas of tall monkeypod trees, with a long porch and white wooden colonnade that would not have looked out of place in southern Virginia. The morning after Papa came home began as usual with the students reciting the Lord’s Prayer, then in chorus singing “Good morning to you” to their teacher; after which they opened their Tower grammars and followed along with Miss Wallis as she recited the alphabet. But in what seemed like no time at all another teacher, a gray-haired Hawaiian woman, appeared in the classroom doorway.
“Miss Wallis? A moment, please?” Normally quite unflappable, today the older woman looked wan and shaken, almost as if she were about to cry. “Students, I have a . . . an announcement. It is with great sadness that I must tell you that our king”–her voice broke as she said it–”King Kalakaua . . . is dead.”
She seemed about to elaborate–then, unable to go on, simply said, “Under the circumstances, Principal Scott has dismissed classes for the day.” And she hurried on to the next classroom, the impact of her news rolling in wave after wave through each grade of the primary school.
Students slowly filtered out of the schoolhouse. Rain was falling in a gray mist, the skies seeming to weep along with the people Rachel encountered in the streets. Stunned and grieving, they gathered in small groups from which rose a spontaneous, collective wail unlike anything Rachel had ever heard before–a deep woeful cry that seemed to come from a hundred hearts at once. Its raw anguish frightened her, and she ran home to find both Mama and Papa in tears as well. Rachel, for whom death was still just a word, tried to comfort them, though not quite understanding why: “It’s all right, Mama. Don’t cry, Papa.” Dorothy took her daughter in her arms and wept, and soon Rachel began to feel that she should be crying too, and so she did.
The king had left in November on a goodwill trip to the United States– Hawai’i’s most important trading partner and the homeland of most its resident foreigners–and for weeks his subjects had been awaiting his return aboard the USS Charleston from San Francisco. But this morning the city’s official lookout, “Diamond Head Charlie,” spotted the Charleston steaming toward Honolulu with its yards acockbill, its flags at half-mast . . . which could mean only one thing. The news was telephoned from Diamond Head and quickly spread across the city like a shadow across the sun; the festive banners and bunting put up in anticipation of Kalakaua’s return were quickly torn down and replaced with solemn black crepe.
The king’s body lay in state in ‘Iolani Palace for the next fifteen days, during which time nearly every resident of Honolulu, and many from the neighbor islands, came to pay their respects. The Kalamas were six among thousands who queued up outside the palace for hours so that they might be able to briefly file past their monarch’s casket.
The king had succumbed, it was now known, to a haole sickness called Bright’s Disease. Old-timers in the crowd found this a melancholy echo of what had befallen Kamehameha II and his queen, both of whom had died after contracting measles on a trip to England. The first of the haole diseases had sailed into Hawai’i on the smiles and charm of Captain Cook’s crew: syphilis and gonorrhea. Others soon followed: cholera, influenza, tuberculosis, mumps, diphtheria. One outbreak of smallpox alone took six thousand lives. Hawaiians, living in splendid isolation for five centuries, had no resistance to these new plagues that rode in on the backs of commerce and culture. Before Cook’s arrival the native population of Hawai’i was more than a quarter of a million people; a hundred years later, it had plummeted to fewer than sixty thousand.
Kalakaua’s people were mourning more than the passing of their king.
No one understood this better than Henry, who in his lifetime had now seen the deaths of four kings. As he and his family finally entered the palace they heard choirs chanting dirges, the ritual laments echoing throughout the vast ornate halls. But in the flower-decked throne room, a dignified silence prevailed. Flanking the coffin were twenty somber attendants holding royal staffs that looked to Rachel like spindly palm trees sprouting feathers instead of fronds. The casket, carved of native woods, was adorned with a silver crown and draped with a golden feather cloak, bright as sunlight. As the Kalamas approached it they now saw, behind thick plate glass, the familiar whiskered profile of David Kalakaua, his head pillowed, looking as if he were merely asleep.
Tears sprang suddenly to Henry’s eyes. He thought of the prophecy–made over a century ago by the high priest Ka’opulupulu, who told the ruler of O’ahu that the line of kings would come to an end at Waikiki, and that the land would belong to a people from across the sea. O’ahu was soon conquered by armies from across that sea–Maui and, later, the island of Hawai’i–and now Henry wondered if he were seeing the other half of the prophecy coming true, if soon there would be an end to the line of kings.
As they passed by the casket Henry and Dorothy each grazed the tips of their fingers against the glass, until the grief of those behind them pushed them on, and out.
On the 15th of February, a somber Sunday, the king was finally laid to rest, beginning with a simple Anglican ceremony inside the throne room, as outside a long line of citizens, again including the Kalamas, stood coiled around the palace. At the conclusion of services a long procession of mourners left ‘Iolani Palace on a solemn march to the Royal Mausoleum in Nu’uanu Valley. In years to come Rachel would remember only a few of these hundreds upon hundreds of marchers: the torch bearers representing the symbol of Kalakaua’s reign, “the flaming torch at midday,” now quenched; the king’s black charger, saddled backward, the horse’s head bent low as though it too understood grief; pallbearers carrying the king’s catafalque, flanked by two columns of brightly plumed standard bearers; and the carriages bearing his widow, Queen Kapi’olani, and his sister Lili’uokalani, now Hawai’i’s first reigning queen. The moment the king’s casket left the palace grounds the air was shaken by the guns of the battleships Charleston and Mohican in the harbor, firing a cannonade in salute, along with a battery emplacement atop Punchbowl Hill. At the same instant, church bells all across the city tolled at once. Rachel clapped her hands to her ears; the noise was almost too much to bear, but she would never forget it, its violence and its majesty. And when the last official members of the cortege left the palace grounds, the procession was joined by those dearest to the late king– his subjects. Hundreds of ordinary Hawaiians who stood twined around the palace now took up the rear of the cortege, a human wreath slowly unfurling itself as the procession wended its way into the green hills above Honolulu.
Rachel understood only that death was a kind of going-away, as when her father went away to sea; but since her father always came back she could not imagine the king would not as well. And so as his casket receded into the distance she raised her hand and waved to him–as she did her father when he boarded his ship and it sailed out onto the open sea, disappearing over the edge of the world.
That moment came, as always, too soon. Papa was home only six weeks before he had to ship out again, this time for San Francisco and, after that, South America. But because he spent so much time away from his children, Henry always did his best to cram six months’ worth of activity into the breathless space of one or two, taking them fishing for shrimp in Nu’uanu Stream or riding the waves at Waikiki. The latter had to be managed with stealth and discretion, since Mama had accepted the missionaries’ proscription against surfing, seen as a worthless, godless activity; Papa would spirit the children away on some pretext, recover his big redwood surfboard from its exile at his friend Sammy’s house, then, one child at a time, paddle out beyond the first shorebreak and instruct them in the ancient art of “wave sliding.”
Another day Papa packed everyone up in their rickety old wagon and took off up a winding six-mile road to Mount Tantalus overlooking the city. The road meandered through bowers of stooped trees bent low over the dirt path, the foliage at times so thick it seemed they were driving through a tunnel of leaves, the air sweet and loamy. At a lookout high above the city they sat and ate a picnic supper; Rachel peered down at the green V of the valley, at the doll’s houses of Honolulu spread out below that, and at the long sweep of coastline from Diamond Head to Kalihi Bay. Thrilled and amazed that she could see so much all at once, she gazed out at the thin line separating blue ocean from blue sky and realized that somewhere beyond that were the distant lands her father knew–the lands of cherry dolls and matryoshka, moonfaced rag dolls and little yellow amahs.
The day he left, the whole family accompanied Papa to the harbor–Rachel up front in Mama’s lap, Ben, Kimo, and Sarah riding in the back of the lurching wagon. Papa tied up at the Esplanade, his children putting on a brave face as they escorted him back to the SS Mariposa, all of them quietly determined not to cry.
But almost as though someone were taking their secret thoughts, their hidden grief, and vocalizing it, there came–from the pier immediately ahead–a terrible, anguished wail. It was not one voice but many, a chorus of lament; and as the cry died away, another promptly began, rising and falling like the wind. It was, Henry and Dorothy both knew, not merely a wail, but a word: auwé, Hawaiian for “alas.” Auwé! Auwwayy! (Alas! Alas!)
It sounded exactly like the cries of grief and loss that Rachel had heard the day the king had come home. “Mama,” she said, fearfully, “is the Queen dead, too?”
“No, child, no,” Dorothy said.
Moored off Pier 10 was a small, decrepit interisland steamer, the Mokoli’i. A distraught crowd huddled behind a wooden barricade, sighing their mournful dirge as a procession of others–young and old, men and women, predominantly Hawaiians and Chinese–were herded by police onto the old cattle boat. Now and then one of the people behind the barricade would reach out to touch someone boarding the ship: a man grasping for a woman, a child reaching for his mother, a friend clasping another’s hand for the last time.
“Ma’i paké,” Kimo said softly.
“What?” Rachel asked.
“They’re lepers, you ninny,” Sarah admonished. “Going to Moloka’i.”
“What’s a leper?”
Someone in the crowd threw a flower lei onto the water, but contrary to legend, it was not likely to ever bring any of these travelers back to Honolulu.
“They’re sick, baby. Very sick,” Mama explained. Rachel didn’t understand. The people didn’t look sick; they didn’t look much different than anyone on the other side of the barricade.
“If they’re sick,” Rachel asked, “why isn’t someone taking care of them?”
No one answered her; and as that word, leper, hung in the still humid air, Dorothy dug her fingers into Rachel’s shoulders and turned her away from the Mokoli’i.
“Come on. Go! Alla you, go!” Henry and Dorothy shepherded their children away from the pier, away from the hapless procession marching onto the grimy little steamer, away from the crowd that mourned for them as though they were already dead; but they couldn’t escape the crowd’s lament, the sad chorale which followed them like some plaintive ghost, all the way to the Mariposa.
Excerpted from Molokai copyright © 2003 Alan Brennert. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without the author’s permission.
Click here to read my review of Alan Brennert’s beautiful sequel to Moloka’i, Daughter of Moloka’i.