Friday, April 07, 2006


Moloka'i is a first novel by Alan Brennert, which I read in hardcover in 2005. It just came out in paperback.

My Early fascination With Leprosy

I've been interested in leprosy since I was a little girl and heard about it -- I have a vivid memory of the lepers in the movie Ben Hur being healed by Jesus -- I remember watching it on TV and asking my dad what was wrong with them. I saw movies about Father Damian, a priest who went to Moloka'i to care for the lepers (and convert them), who got leprosy as well.

There is also an interesting depiction of the period of time -- 1890's to early 1900's -- at the beginning of this novel in the movie The Hawaiians, with Charlton Heston. Based on the novel by James Michener, The Hawaiians is about the descendents of the characters in the movie Hawaii.

In The Hawaiians, the great Japanese actor, Mako, portrays Mun Ki -- a Chinese immigrant to Hawaii who ends up fathering many sons with another immigrant, played by actress Tina Chen, even though he has a wife and family he is sending money to in China. When Mun Ki gets leprosy, his "wife" hides his condition as long as possible. When the leprosy inspectors find out about Mun Ki, she goes with him, to care for him, to Moloka'i. She is permanently exiled there with him, and ironically, never contracts leprosy herself -- some people are inherently immune.

My fascination with leprosy is two-fold. One source is my own skin disorder, a genetically caused condition called epidermolytic hyperkeratosis (EHK). EHK causes the body to produce skin cells faster than normal, and the cells don't break down properly, so there is considerable flaking and callousing, and blistering when friction occurs -- such as the friction caused by walking. Put simply, it is different looking and scary looking to some people.

When I heard about leprosy as a young girl, I was intrigued by the idea of being someplace where everyone else had the same disease; they wouldn't be scared of each other, would they? I didn't meet anyone else with EHK until I was 35.

I was also intrigued by the fact that leprosy doesn't hurt -- in fact that is a huge part of the problem. Nerve damage causes numbness, and burns and injuries can occur without the person with leprosy being aware of it. Discomfort is a big issue with my disability; its "otherness", like leprosy, is in the appearance, but it also can hurt. How would I feel if my disability didn't hurt, and I only had the social issues with which to contend.

The Novel

The main character of Moloka'i, Rachel Kalema, is a young girl at the beginning of the book, which also helped to draw me in. When she is diagnosed with leprosy, she is taken away from her family and exiled to Moloka'i, where she spends most of her life.

The novel covers the entire arch of the treatment of leprosy and leprosy patients from the 1890's to the 1960's. Leprosy becomes the less stigmatizing "Hansen's Disease". In the 1940's, drug therapy is developed that causes the leprosy to go into remission; it also renders it not communicable, if the patients continue their medication.

The novel, like any book about a small community where the members are thrown together involuntarily -- novels about the Holocaust and about the internment of the Japanese during WWII come to mind -- is a study in human nature as well. How different people react to similarly horrendous circumstances; for some, it brings out the best in them, for others, the worst.

I highly recommend this novel.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Those Who Fail to Learn From History Are Doomed to Repeat It

These days, I do most of my reading during my commute. To finish Hosack's Folly, however, I designated a couple of hours yesterday, and sat in my "library" and finished it. I am a sucker for historical novels -- actually, it is rare that a "contemporary" novel will entice me -- and am fond of those set in the 19th Century in particular.

This is a deeply researched novel about a real person, David Hosack. Hosack was, as a young man, the doctor who attended Alexander Hamilton during and after his infamous duel with Aaron Burr. Hosack went on to found Bellevue Hospital (for the purpose of the quarantine of yellow fever victims), as well as the Columbia College of Physicians and the first Botanical Garden in New York.

Hosack talked the pols into founding Bellevue after a particularly virulent yellow fever outbreak in 1814.

This book prompted the d'Tocqueville paraphrase above for a couple of reasons. For one, a main plot element in the book is the efforts of the title character, Hosack, to prevent a yellow fever epidemic in the Manhattan of 1824. At that time in history, according to the afterward, they didn't know what caused the spread of yellow fever, but they did know how to minimize its spread, once an outbreak occurred.

As with so many historical novels, I believe this one to be timely, in light of the current concerns over the possible pandemic of avian flu.

In Hosack's Folly, the pols both foil Hosack's initial efforts to quarantine the port when the first few yellow fever cases occur -- quarantine is bad for business, as well as use the outbreak later to distract the public from other more embarrassing events for the pols.

This latter plot element clearly articulated something that has been bothering me about the Bush Administration's various press releases about the dangers of the avian flu and all of its new and improved efforts to protect its fellow Americans.

Fool Me Once, Shame on You, Fool Me Twice, Shame on Me

Since it has become pretty clear that at best the Bush camp shared bad information with the public as a justification for the invasion of Iraq (and at worst, lied repeatedly and knowingly about the WMDs), my trust in anything they say has been seriously compromised.

Followed by the Katrina response by the same administration and the collateral finger-pointing, I take everything I hear about it, particularly if it is labeled as coming from the feds -- as opposed as being planted by the feds -- with a large dose of salt.

It is not that I disbelieve that the avian flu is a serious and very real health issue/threat, but rather that I tend to think that the Administration's attention to the issue is driven not by a genuine desire to protect you and me from an epidemic, but rather to get our attention away from this whole pesky Middle East situation.

My Brush With Politics and Politicians

The other thing I really enjoyed in Hosack's Folly was the depiction of backroom politics in 1820's Manhattan. I enjoyed it because it seemed as though nothing has changed all that much in the intervening 185 years.

My brush with politics was in San Francisco in the early 1990's, but nothing has changed much from my view. The most disappointing thing for me was learning that even the "good guys" were for sale, and had to be if they had anything but the lowest of aspirations.

This foray of mine into the ranks of what Willie Brown deemed "panty-waste politicians" convinced me of two things above all. 1. That to get to as elevated an office as President, a politician must sell his soul many, many times over; and 2. That self-interest always predominates over the public interest in the mind of any successful politician.

Taste It, Smell It

If you take writing classes, one of the recurrent messages is "show, don't tell". Gillen D'Arcy Wood does a masterful job of this in Hosack's Folly, which is his first novel. D'Arcy Wood is a historian by training, and really makes the Manhattan of past come to life in all of its stinking, dusty, sweaty glory.

If you are like me and have a strong but oft thwarted desire to romanticize the past, then the depiction of a summer in Manhattan without air conditioning, pest control, running water or sewer systems will bring you back to earth in a big hurry.

This is a great effort for a first novel, and I hope it is the first of many from this author.

Now available in paperback: