The BookBrowse Review

Published January 22, 2020

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Daughter of Moloka'i
Daughter of Moloka'i
by Alan Brennert

Paperback (7 Jan 2020), 320 pages.
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
ISBN-13: 9781250137678
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The highly anticipated sequel to Alan Brennert's acclaimed book club favorite, and national bestseller, Moloka'i

Alan Brennert's beloved novel Moloka'i, currently has over 600,000 copies in print. This companion tale tells the story of Ruth, the daughter that Rachel Kalama - quarantined for most of her life at the isolated leprosy settlement of Kalaupapa - was forced to give up at birth.

The book follows young Ruth from her arrival at the Kapi'olani Home for Girls in Honolulu, to her adoption by a Japanese couple who raise her on a strawberry and grape farm in California, her marriage and unjust internment at Manzanar Relocation Camp during World War II - and then, after the war, to the life-altering day when she receives a letter from a woman who says she is Ruth's birth mother, Rachel.

Daughter of Moloka'i expands upon Ruth and Rachel's 22-year relationship, only hinted at in Moloka'i. It's a richly emotional tale of two women - different in some ways, similar in others - who never expected to meet, much less come to love, one another. And for Ruth it is a story of discovery, the unfolding of a past she knew nothing about. Told in vivid, evocative prose that conjures up the beauty and history of both Hawaiian and Japanese cultures, it's the powerful and poignant tale that readers of Moloka'i have been awaiting for fifteen years.

Chapter 1

1919

The sky above Diamond Head was a spray of gold as the sun seemed to rise up out of the crater itself. From atop its windy hill in Kalihiuka—"inland Kalihi"—Kapi'olani Home took in the sweeping view, from the grassy caldera of Diamond Head to the concrete craters of the new dry docks at Pearl Harbor. On a clear day, even the neighbor islands of Lana'i and Moloka'i could be seen straddling the horizon. The big, two-story plantation-style house on thirteen acres of trim lawn stood alongside the sisters' convent and chapel. The Kalihi Valley was largely agricultural, and the Home was surrounded by acres of sprawling cow pastures, hog breeders, and backyard poultry farms whose hens nested in old orange crates and whose roosters announced Morning Mass as well as any church bell. On the other side of Kamehameha IV Road there were groves of big-leafed banana plants, tall and thick as trees, prodigal with hanging clusters of green and yellow fruit; taro patches filled with heart-shaped leaves like fields of valentines; and terraced rice paddies glistening in the morning sun.

As in most Catholic orphanages and schools, the Sisters of St. Francis required that the corridors remain quiet, orderly—places of silent contemplation, not to be desecrated with idle conversation. Other than this, there were only three major rules at Kapi'olani Home:

1. After breakfast no standing around talking but do your work quickly and well.

2. Do not throw your clothes on the floor nor rubbish in the yard.

3. Line up and march orderly.

Morning call sent the girls springing out of bed, into washrooms to scrub faces and comb hair, then dress. Filing quietly down corridors and into the dining hall, they went to their tables—ten girls at each one—and stood behind their chairs, joining with Sister Bonaventure in reciting the blessing:

Thank you for the world so sweet,

Thank you for the food we eat.

Thank you for the birds that sing,

Thank you, God, for everything. Amen.

This was followed by the scraping of sixty chairs on the floor as the girls seated themselves and ate a breakfast of poi, rice, eggs, and sausages. It was near the end of breakfast that a three-year-old girl—standing on tiptoes and peering out the dining room windows—made an exciting announcement:

"Cow!"

As she ran delightedly out of the dining room, the other girls flocked to the windows. Yet another of Mr. Mendonca's cows, having decided that the grass was, in fact, greener on the other side the fence, was grazing contentedly on their front lawn.

"Wow, look at the size of its whatzit!" said one girl.

"I believe she needs to be milked," Sister Bonaventure noted calmly. "Now, girls, let's all get back to our—"

Too late. What moments before had been a docile group of girls eating breakfast became a stampede out of the dining hall.

On the second floor, Sister Louisa, hearing the drumbeat of footfalls below, raced down the staircase to find a raging river of girls surging past her.

And far ahead of them all was a three-year-old with amber skin and almond eyes, crying out, "Cow! Cow! Big brown cow!" at the top of her voice.

"Ruth!" Louisa immediately broke into a run herself. "Come back!"

Ruth burst out the front door, down the porch steps, and went straight to the grazing heifer, which was completely oblivious to the fuss it had stirred up.

"Hi, cow!" Ruth welcomed it. "Hi!"

Ruth stood about three feet tall; the cow, perhaps a foot taller. Ruth reached up and gently stroked the side of its neck as it chewed. "Good cow," she said, smiling. "You're a good cow."

As Sister Louisa rushed outside, she saw the child she had promised to protect petting an eight-hundred-pound Guernsey, whose right hoof, with one step, could have easily crushed the girl's small foot.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from Daughter of Moloka'i by Alan Brennert. Copyright © 2019 by Alan Brennert. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. If you've read Moloka'i, you already knew that the U.S. government used to take away the newborn children of Hansen's disease patients out of fear their parents would infect them. If you weren't aware of this, does it shock you to learn of it—and the fact that this practice continued even into the 1950s? What must Ruth's parents have gone through to give up their child?
  2. What do animals represent to Ruth?
  3. If you were Taizo, would you have accepted Jiro's offer and moved to California? If you were Etsuko, what would your response have been?
  4. What is your opinion of Jiro, and did it change in any way over the course of the story?
  5. Would it shock you to learn that Joseph Dreesen was based on a real-life person—his name was John Reese—who made public statements about the Japanese similar to those Dreesen makes in this novel? Were you aware of the widespread prejudice that Japanese immigrants faced in the early twentieth century?
  6. Were you aware of the way many Japanese Americans lost their homes and jobs when they were "relocated" and interned? Do you believe Executive Order No. 9066 was justified or unjustified?
  7. Can you imagine yourself living under the conditions Ruth's family finds themselves living at Tanforan and Manzanar?
  8. Who, in your judgment, was at fault in the Manzanar riot—the protesters, the military police, or both?
  9. If you were a Japanese American being interned during World War II, what would your response have been to the government's "loyalty oath"—Questions 27 and 28—referred to on page 157 of the novel?
  10. Did you find Taizo's sense of honor baffling or frustrating? Did you come to understand it better by the end of the story?
  11. What would you have done had you been Ruth, suddenly confronted with the news that her birth mother was alive—and that she had Hansen's disease? Would you have agreed to see her, as Ruth does, or not?
  12. Compare and contrast the kinds of exile that Rachel and Ruth each experienced. Which would you have found more oppressive?
  13. Do you believe Sister Catherine ultimately found peace and was forgiven by her God?
  14. How is the Hawaiian phrase "The land is the chief, man is its servant" relevant to us today?
  15. How would you have dealt with the secret that Jiro and Nishi tell Ruth? Would you have been as angry as she was, and how difficult would it have been for you to keep the secret?
  16. Do you believe Ruth and Peggy actually heard the huaka'i pōat Kahakuloa?
  17. Would you have done what Rachel does in order to see her great-grandchild?
  18. Discuss Ruth's changing views on what it means to be hapa. Do you think the peace she finds in it has been well earned?

Recommended Viewing

There are a wealth of nonfiction books available about the Japanese internment, many of which are cited in the Author's Note.

But here are some works in other media that can be viewed with your entire family and that present vivid and moving stories of Japanese Americans' experiences in World War II relocation centers.

Farewell to Manzanar was one of the first films about the Japanese internment. A powerful television movie based on the memoir by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston, it has rarely been seen since its first airing in 1976. Happily it has recently been released on DVD by the Japanese American National Museum. To order a copy, go to https://janmstore.com/products/farewell-to-manzanar-dvd.

Allegiance is a stirring stage musical inspired by the true life experiences of its star, George Takei. It fictionalizes and conflates the draft resistance at Heart Mountain camp with the violence that took place at Tule Lake to create a poignant musical drama about conflict, estrangement, and reconciliation. It is currently playing in theatrical venues across the country and there is also a film of the musical that is presented on special occasions (such as December 7). For information on both stage and film productions, go to https://allegiancemusical.com.

Rabbit in the Moon, an award-winning documentary by Emiko Omori, explores not only her family's years at Poston War Relocation Center in Arizona, but takes a wider look at the tensions, divisions, and resistance in the internment camps in general. One of the people interviewed is Harry Ueno, whose arrest sparked the Manzanar riot. It too is available through the Japanese American National Museum at https://janmstore.com/products/rabbit-in-the-moon-a-documentary-memoir-about-the-world-war-ii-japanese-american-internment.

The Untold Story: Internment of Japanese Americans in Hawai'i is a documentary by Ryan Kayamoto focusing on the little-known internment camps in Hawai'i, where the majority of Japanese Americans were not interned. The story of those who were—leaders in the Japanese community, Buddhist priests, schoolteachers, often subjected to degrading treatment—has long needed telling. The DVD can be ordered from the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i at https://www.jcch.com/gift-shop. (The Hawaiian internment camps were also the subject of a memorable episode of the rebooted Hawaii Five-O titled "Ho'onani Makuakane" that aired in 2013 and is available on Netflix.)

 

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of St. Martin's Griffin. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

A companion story to Alan Brennert's Moloka'i that follows Ruth from her adoption as a child to finding her mother as an adult.

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Alan Brennert's latest novel, Daughter of Moloka'i, follows the life of Ruth, a hapa – someone who is half-Japanese and half-Hawaiian - from her placement in a Honolulu orphanage at age three, her eventual adoption by a Japanese family, her relocation to America, and finally to her life as a happily married woman with adult children of her own.

The author uses Ruth's experiences to explore a number of important cultural and political topics. Her mixed heritage and the fact that she's female and not a more-favored male impact her ability to get adopted. Later, her family must endure the incredibly discriminatory anti-immigration laws the United States enacted against those of Asian heritage in the early 20th century (which inevitably causes one to ponder the country's current immigration policies).

The largest section of the novel addresses the suffering of Japanese citizens and others of Japanese ancestry in the US during WWII, as Ruth and her family become part of the 117,000 individuals that are sent to relocation camps. There have been many fine books over the past few years that explore this dark era of American history and I admit I wondered, at first, what else could be learned about these experiences that I hadn't encountered before. I was surprised therefore at how fresh Brennert's novel felt in spite of covering well-known issues. His inclusion of many small details about life in the camps painted a more nuanced picture than any account I've read to date. They added to my understanding of the family's plight, such as how their accommodations were former horse stalls, and although they'd been painted, they still stank of manure, or the fact that the former stable walls didn't reach to the ceiling, creating an atmosphere where one could hear every aspect of their neighbor's lives. Such intimate minutia inspired an empathy and compassion in me that felt new.

Perhaps the highlight of this excellent novel is the depth with which the book's protagonist, Ruth, is drawn. She comes across as a perfect balance of a traditionally dutiful Japanese daughter and a modern American woman of the 1940s – a complex, three-dimensional character. I was particularly impressed with the way Brennert portrayed the anger she felt about the way she and her family were treated, and that as she aged, she was quite (justifiably) bitter about her family's confinement and seemed to even experience a bit of lingering PTSD decades after returning home. It's a difficult balance act for a writer to achieve, and Brennert handles it beautifully.

Ruth's birth mother, Rachel Kalama (the subject of Brennert's earlier work, Moloka'i), reconnects with Ruth in the last section of the book. Part of me was happy to have the bridge between the two novels, but I also found this part less interesting. The interaction between all parties concerned (Ruth, Rachel, Ruth's adopted mother, her husband and her children) seemed far too easy to me. Basically, the book became too sunny toward the end for my tastes, which I felt put the latter chapters out of step with events that came before.

Regardless, Daughter of Moloka'i is a heartfelt novel that is sure to please Brennert's fans and win him many new ones. While not really breaking new ground, the characters are so well-crafted that the book is eminently entertaining. I highly recommend it to book groups and to anyone wishing for a look at another version of the Japanese-American experience in World War II.

Reviewed by Kim Kovacs

USA Today
Alan Brennert does more than deliver the long-awaited sequel to has 2003 bestseller, Moloka’i...Brennert’s polished work extends an evocative, emotionally rich family saga to an important moment in American history....A novel of illumination and affection.

National Geographic
The reunion and blossoming relationship between mother and daughter is rooted in a deep love of Hawaii. Have tissues at hand.

USA Today
Brennert’s writing – workmanlike in the camp section – comes alive in his blending of ethnic language and his descriptions of Hawaii’s volcanic splendor...From the pain of Moloka’i, he crafts a novel of illumination and affection.

Publishers Weekly
In Brennert's skilled hands, Ruth's story is powerful and urgent.

Booklist
A historically solid, ultimately hopeful novel about injustice, survival, and unbreakable family bonds. Expect high demand.

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Becky H
Daughter of Moloka'i is here!
The long awaited sequel to MOLOKA’I is here! Rachel’s daughter Ruth, taken from her the day Ruth was born, is the main character in this family tale that extends from Hawaii to California to Japanese internment camps and back to California.
Brennert excels in incorporating actual people and events into his stories. DAUGHTER OF MOLOKA’I is no exception. The discrimination against Japanese (Rachel is adopted by a Japanese couple) in the early part of the twentieth century, the difficult life of “foreign” farmers in the lush farmland of California and the internment of hapless Japanese during WWII make up the bulk of this novel. The final portion relates the difficulty of adoptees and their birth parents in locating each other and the repercussions that follow. Brennert’s empathy finds expression is his clearly drawn characters, skillful conversations and deft handling of conflict.
Book groups will love this historically accurate account of difficult episodes., especially those who have read and loved MOLOKA’I. Groups interested in immigration/emigration issues will find much to discuss.

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Leprosy

In Daughter of Moloka'i by Alan Brennert, the main character is forcibly taken from her mother and put up for adoption because her mother was diagnosed with leprosy. Also called Hansen's Disease, leprosy affects a person's skin and peripheral nerves causing a loss of sensation and tissue degeneration. Those impacted may experience the gradual loss of their extremities or even the amputation of a limb as hands and feet become deformed and eroded over time, generally because minor injuries go unnoticed and untreated. This is particularly true of populations who are poor and who may lack basic healthcare to treat such wounds.

The disease is caused by a bacillus called Mycrobacterium leprae (M. leprae). It's been a somewhat mysterious ailment, and even today scientists are uncertain about the exact mechanism of its transmission. It's never been successfully grown in a culture, and in fact the bacillus dies a few hours after being removed from its host. It takes three to five years for someone who's been exposed to develop symptoms (and it could be up to 20 years), and even then, symptoms progress very slowly. Leprosy affects surprisingly few animals, being isolated to primates and armadillos (and people infected the armadillos, not the other way around). It takes prolonged, intimate contact with an infected person to contract the disease, and those with healthy immune systems are able to successfully fight off M. leprae.

According to Britannica, the oldest known leprous cadaver was discovered in India and dates to approximately 2000 BCE, although genetic studies of M. leprae indicate it's been around for something like 100,000 years and may have originated in eastern Africa or southwestern Asia. One theory is that it spread to Europe as the armies of Alexander the Great and Pompey marched through, eventually becoming so commonplace throughout the continent that people thought it was highly infectious; by 1200 CE there were an estimated 19,000 leprosy hospitals throughout Europe.

Individuals thought to be lepers often lived isolated lives. They could only be on the road if they wore a sign identifying themselves as diseased and had to continuously ring a bell as a warning to healthy people to steer clear. Leprosy was referred to as the "living death," because those who contracted it were treated as if they had already died. Some thought it was hereditary, so not only was the infected individual ostracized, but frequently their family was as well. It was common for people to be forced to live in leper colonies so as to not expose others.

In 1873, Dr. G.H. Armauer Hansen of Bergen, Norway, identified the leprosy organism under a microscope and demonstrated that it was, indeed, an infectious disease – and something that could be treated. Over the ensuing decades, drugs were developed that completely cure it. Instances of leprosy have decreased by 90% since the 1990s, largely thanks to an initiative by the World Health Organization to stamp out the disease. In spite of great progress, though, approximately 200,000 new cases are reported worldwide each year, with 150-250 occurring in the United States.

Filed under Medical, Science and Tech

By Kim Kovacs

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