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November 07, 2016



By: Alan Brennert

In 1891, Hawaii was still a sovereign kingdom, and seven-year-old Rachel Kalama was diagnosed with leprosy. The fear of contagion was so strong that Rachel, like anyone diagnosed with the disease, was forcibly removed from her family, sent to a hospital for a number of months for confirmation, and sent to the leper colony at Kalaupapa, Moloka’i, where she is expected to die.

Leprosy was little understood in the 19th century and early 20th century, and the fear of contagion coupled with the idea that it was a “moral disease,” led to the desire to isolate victims and shunning the victims’ families. Today, leprosy – or Hansen’s disease as it is now called – can be effectively treated with medical drugs, and we now know that as many as 95% of people are completely immune to it.

Luckily for Rachel, the disease progression is very slow. She finds friends, goes to schools, learns to surf, and becomes part of the community there. Even as her friends succumb to the disease, she falls in love, runs a business, and has a child that she is forced to give up for adoption. She becomes a test subject as medical scientists experiment with new drugs and treatments. Finally, in 1948, she is considered cured, and she leaves Kalaupapa for the first time in almost 60 years to find her family and her child.

For a nonfiction work on the colony at Kalaupapa, try The Colony by John Tayman, which follows the origins of the colony to the present day. Enforced isolation of people diagnosed with Hansen’s disease ended in 1969, but many longtime residents have chosen to remain in their homes there. Today, Kalaupapa is owned by the federal government.

Review By:  Julia Welzen