On October 11, 2009, the long process by which the Catholic Church mulls declaring a person a saint culminated in the canonization of Father Damien, famous as the 'leper priest' of Hawaii. His feast day will be May 10. His story is part of a very good new young adult novel whose young protagonist is a 19th century boy diagnosed with what is now called Hansen's disease and sent off to exile on the isolated colony of Molokai.
Joyce Moyer Hostetter
2008, Calkins Creek
"You're as good as dead already. And you are, too!" I shouted to a little girl with a thin face and wide eyes. I tried not to notice that she looked like my sister. "And you and you and you!" I pointed to anyone who dared to stare at me. "You're all going to die - all of you. Your grave is waiting on Moloka'i!"
If 13-year-old Pia is angry, he has good reason. The year is 1869, and the fatherless young Hawaiian has been diagnosed with leprosy, the dreaded disfiguring disease with (then) no cure, and sent to the new leper colony on Molokai'i. On a barren, lawless penninsula cut off from the rest of the island by massive sea cliffs too formidable for an ailing population to scale, Pia and his fellow sufferers are abandoned, save for a token police force and shipments of supplies which never come close to providing for all the unwilling inhabitants.
Pia, mourning the separation from his mother, sisters and 'ohana (extended family), is also embittered by a more personal betrayal. Kamaka, the young man who has been Pia's best friend, surrogate older brother and father, the person he looked up to and emulated all his life, fled from him even before the government shipped Pia away to Molokai'i. Haunted by memories of a childhood encounter with a leper, Kamaka ran rather than visit Pia in the hospital, or join the rest of the family to bid him aloha at the dock when he's forced to leave Honolulu for the last time.
Kamaka was like the steamer that dumped me here and then brought supplies to me. He was like Boki, who rescued me and then made me his slave. I hated all of them. But I kept wondering - how could I survive without them?
Angry and fighting to survive his first weeks in the colony, Pia becomes involved with the criminal Boki, a relationship which brands him a thief and an outcast even among this community of outcasts. Pia's only affection is for the little girl Maka Nui, who reminds him of his sister, and the elderly woman Keona. A few years later, a pair of new arrivals change Pia's world - Kamaka, who's unafflicted but accompanying his afflicted wife, and a 33-year-old Catholic priest named Damien. Kamaka, sincerely grieving his actions, patiently tries to persuade his old friend to give him another chance, while the assertive new priest sets to work rehabilitating the colony.
The book is haunting. On his first day on Molokai, Pia stumbles across a wild pig rooting in a shallow grave, and realizes with horror that the animal is consuming the remains of a leper. The reality of their shortened lives and the general lack of community in the colony means that Pia is revisited often by the question of his own death, and what will happen to his body in a place where there is no proper system to bury the dead. On Damien's first day on Molokai, he bullies Pia into helping him bury a dead man; seeing the man's disfigured, decayed form, he breaks down, leaving Pia with the impression that for the first time, someone cares about the hapless inhabitants of this de facto prison. And Damien proves this on a more personal level, caring for Pia's neglected feet. Leprosy causes nerve damage, and throughout the book Pia increasingly loses sensation in his feet. This loss of the ability to feel pain is a practical issue - infection sets in when patients fail to notice or care for small injuries, resulting in the disfigurement popularly associated with the disease - but Hostetter uses it to echo Pia's desire to stop feeling anything emotionally as well.
The questions of anger, forgiveness and their role in a good v. a bad life are handled well. Kamaka earns his forgiveness, and Pia witnesses, without neccessarily participating in, the unearned forgiveness dispensed by Damien. Pia is a strong character with a distinctive, believable voice, and there is great consistency to his actions. The plot is neat and collected, showing good control over the ending. One point that seemed to get away is the young girl Piolani, who seems for a time to be a romantic interest but who fades out of the picture.
About the Author
Visit Molokai website
National Park Service - Kalauppa
Photos of Molokai
Father Damien links
Catholic News story
Statue in the Capitol, Washington, D.C.
Molokai: The Story of Father Damien (1999)
Damiaan (1986) (TV) (Belgian)
Father Damien: The Leper Priest (1980) (TV)
An Uncommon Kindness
St. Augustine Catholic Church in Waikiki plans to build Damien museum
Belgian and Canadian film crews work on documentaries on Damien
1-2 million people are still affected by Hansen's today, though it is treatable.
The World Health Organization - Leprosy Today
Centers For Disease Control - Leprosy
Evidence that leprosy existed 4,000 years ago