Moloka'i - Alan Brennert "That is what I believe in, Aouli. I believe in Hawai'i. I believe in the land."

Rachel Kalama is only a girl of seven when she is taken from the loving arms of her mother and father, Dorothy and Henry Kalama, and sent to Kalaupapa, Moloka'i, a leper colony. But although Rachel is torn away from her biological 'ohana, family, she forges relationships and connections that carry her through her illness.

I chose this book for my book club because I spent almost 12 years of my childhood in Hawaii. And reading this book was like taking a walk back through my life. I may never have spent any time on Moloka'i, but I recognized many of the names and places that Rachel visits on Oahu (though she was there in 1893 and I was there in 1993).

One of the biggest, best things about this book is the setting and atmosphere. I thought Alan Brennert did an incredible job creating Hawaii in book form. I could feel it in the descriptions of the landscape, in the usage of Hawaiian names, in the very being of many of the characters (such as Haleola, Rachel's adopted aunt, who so neatly provides the quote I used for my review title). When a book makes you homesick, when a book makes you, after almost 30 years of indecision, finally figure out where your "hometown" is, that is a tremendous feat.

Overall, I really liked the characters too. I felt they were three dimensional and actually felt Hawaiian or Nisei or white or whatever ethnicity they were. Rachel, of course, is our primary character, and I thought she was a great choice. We follow her through the course of her life, the people she interacts with and bonds with, the experiences she has, the changes she sees around her. One of the highlights, I found, was in her eventual acceptance of having leprosy. Through much of the book, she desires to be cured and leave to start experiencing life. I thought it poignant how she eventually discovers that she can start experiencing life NOW with leprosy and how she shouldn't let life go on without her regardless of her health. Another aspect that really struck me was how, close to the end, she is faced with leaving Moloka'i and the challenges she has there (leaving the home she's known for 50+ years, having to integrate with people who still are biased against victims of Hansen's disease, etc.). I really liked Kenji and thought he was a very interesting character. He burned with anger against his leprosy, and I liked how Rachel was able to get him to cool it and try to embrace the world around her. He and Rachel had good chemistry that lasted far into their marriage. The character of Sister Catherine brought in the struggle of working for these poor patients, of seeing children plagued with this diseased, marred, and having to reconcile that fact with her faith. And other characters, such as Haleola, Uncle Pono, and Leilani, give a sneak peek at Hawaii's past, at love in a leper colony, and of the challenge of sexuality in the early 20th century.

What's really neat too, is that there are real people who appear in these pages. Apparently, Ambrose really did work as a superintendent, Jack London really came to Moloka'i, and others, while not real, were based on real people.

But that doesn't mean this book is without faults. Character points of view could literally change within two paragraphs, with no chapter or section break. One moment, you are reading from Rachel's POV, the next, Pono, or Haleola, or Sister Catherine. This was frustrating, keeping on top of who was saying what. Sometimes the story nearly grinds to a halt as Brennert tries to keep up with the history of the time. I understand that times are changing, but must we stop so that the characters can "catch up" with the times: with electricity, cars, refrigeration, planes, etc.? That doesn't even include the background history that goes on: several times, Rachel's story stops to fill in the blanks of what is going around in the world (such as the death of the King of Hawaii, which seems to not fit in no matter how much it impacts a character, the American take over of Hawaii, and World War II). I know it is a tricky balance, to make the world seem real and yet not spend so much time creating that background as to halt the story.

Also, the story seemed to get distracted at times, or brought up threads that didn't go anywhere. Leilani and her sexuality is a great example; Sister Catherine and her family problems seemed to be another one (what happens to her in the end??? I have no clue!). And then there are some sexual situations in the book (Rachel losing her virginity, a scene where Pono and Haleola are "getting it on", etc.) that just felt awkward and unnecessary, even if they weren't overly graphic (though I didn't need that much description when Rachel and Noaha get it on!).

I liked this book quite a bit. The setting was beautifully recreated, Brennert did a good job writing from a woman's point of view, and the story itself was touching. For the weird POV changes, the history infodumps, and the uncomfortable sexual situations (I wonder what my other book club members will think of that!), I would probably rate this 3.5 stars. And because I'm trying to be harsher with my ratings, I'll gives this 3 stars. A good book, a great story, and a beautiful land.