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Running from Moloka`i

Adult; General Fiction (including literary and historical); (Publish)

What would it take to make you betray the papa you adore? It is 1884. The small kingdom of Hawaii is ravished by a deadly foreign disease for which there is no cure. Foreigners brought the disease, and now they are punishing the native Hawaiians who are afflicted. Most with the disease of leprosy are exiled to Moloka`i and a lonely death. After all, foreigners make the laws, and they want those with the disease to be gone. But Hawaiians cannot bear to be separated from family: they want those with the disease to be cared for at home where they can be loved and can die with dignity. Most with the disease submit to the health authorities—but not all. Some with the disease are hidden by their families…in hills and valleys, caves, and cane fields. They are eluding exile, trying to save as much as they can for as long as they can. They are hiding from the sheriff and health authorities like fifteen-year-old Mele Bennett’s white physician father. Mele’s father is adamant in his conviction that exile is the only way to protect the remaining Hawaiians from the deadly epidemic. To him, the survival of the race is at stake. Her mother is equally intent on keeping Hawaiian families together, sick or not. To her, without family there is nothing. When Mele discovers that her Hawaiian mother is secretly helping some who hiding, she struggles with her own beliefs about right and wrong, loyalty, compassion, justice. Mele longs for a defining moment—a shiny moment like when the firebrand is tossed over the cliff and lights up the night sky! Instead, she is torn from the security of her childhood belief that her papa can fix anything. In seeking her own path, can she betray the papa she adores? Mele is surrounded by forces she underestimates: the power of greed; the bitterness of an American boy; the lifelong secret of Keahi, the boy she loves…and the untested heart of her father. Her mother was right: her papa was not God; he was only a man standing out in the pasture with the moon lighting up his shirt as he bent over shaking after Mimo was taken. Mele, her family, and Keahi will see the walls of their world crumble as they are reshaped by this historic conflict in the latter years of an agonized and fading kingdom. “At first,” she says, “I saw myself as separate from those hiding. After all, they had leprosy while I had the protection of my half-white blood. But after Jacob Maila, the lines began to blur. Papa, Keahi, me, those hidden and those taken—we were all clinging to our own cliffs. By the end of my fifteenth year, I was not coming-of-age; I was coming-of-heart.”
This emotionally affecting debut novel follows Mele, a young woman with a white father and native Hawai’ian mother in 19th-century Hawai’i, as she struggles to understand her identity and leprosy is brought to the islands by foreign travelers. The disease primarily affects native Hawai’ians, who are taken from their homes by the health authorities’ bounty hunters and exiled to Moloka’i. Mele’s father, a compassionate yet pragmatic physician who works for the Board of Health, argues that this forced banishment is necessary for the survival of the population, while her mother helps harbor fugitives in the caves near their house. As the disease begins to affect those closest to her, Mele reckons with the morality of her and her family’s decisions.

Mele’s attempts to do the right thing, in such a complex situation with her parents at odds, make for an intriguing premise. Anderson, who lived in Hawai’i, is clearly knowledgeable about its culture and its people—there are references to real historical figures and places sprinkled throughout—and her descriptions of the physical landscape are detailed and poetic, making readers feel they’re right alongside Mele.

The many side stories (including those of Daniel Livingstone, a disrespectful boy from San Francisco; Keanu, a criminal on trial for murder; and Kalua, a young boy who keeps sneaking onto cargo ships) can lessen the impact of Mele’s journey by giving the reader a great deal of information to digest at once. The story is at its best when it focuses on Mele, her family, and her place in society. Ultimately, this is a riveting and educational coming-of-age tale, and readers will relish learning about this period in Hawa’ii through Mele’s experience.

Takeaway: This thought-provoking coming-of-age novel is perfect for history buffs.

Great for fans of: Alan Brennert’s Moloka’i, Kiana Davenport’s Shark Dialogues.

Production grades
Cover: A-
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: B+
Marketing copy: B+

(Community reader) James Lawry

"I was, while reading, constantly reminded of ... books I read earlier in my life that similarly 'touched my very soul,' by Leon Uris - James Michener - John Steinbeck..."

Allison Casey at Mindjoggle

"Running from Moloka`i is a notable exception that is worth any historical fiction lover's time...Anderson has meticulously researched the culture and history of both leprosy and the white colonization of Hawaii.  Her writing is exceptional.... I too give it 5 stars--I can't wait for more from Anderson." 

Kirkus Reviews

"Readers will fervently hope that Anderson has more novels in her because this one is a winner."