With “Daughter of Moloka’i" (★★★1/2 out of four; St. Martin’s Press, 320 pp., released Tuesday), Alan Brennert does more than deliver the long-awaited sequel to has 2003 bestseller, “Moloka’i.” Unforced and uncontrived, Brennert’s polished work extends an evocative, emotionally rich family saga to an important moment in American history, and the readership he won with the first book will be grateful he took his time.
“Moloka’i” introduced us to Rachel Kalama, a Hawaiian child who contracted leprosy in the Honolulu of the 1890s and was deported to the quarantined leper settlement of Kalaupapa on the island of Moloka’i. There she fell in love with and married a Japanese man, Kenji Utagawa, but the infected pair were forced to give up their infant daughter, Ruth, to prevent infecting the baby.
Brennert sensitively sketched the Utagawas’ heartbreak and dignity in the face of medical and cultural reality, and “Daughter of Moloka’i” picks up the narrative thread in 1917, when the healthy Ruth, barely a year old, is brought to the Catholic sanctuary of Kapi’olani Home. Ruth is happy at the orphanage, cares deeply for stray cats and dogs, but her youth is marked by a strong sense of otherness. She is what Hawaiians call "hapa" – of mixed race – and suffers rejection by a series of would-be parents who consider adapting her, until she is matched with the Watanabes, a Japanese couple who want to complete their young brood with a girl.
Ruth and her new family – loving father Taizo, mother Etsuko and their sons – immigrate to the U.S. in the 1920s, where Taizo has agreed to partner with his older brother, Jiro, on farmland near San Francisco. The bigotry of white Californians toward the quietly striving Japanese is a constant shadow, but the dislocations of the Great Depression and, ultimately, World War II traumatize the growing family.
With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the U.S. enters the war and the Franklin Roosevelt administration issues its misguided decree to place West Coast Japanese Americans in internment camps. By then, Ruth has married hard-working Frank Harada and together have two children and opened a diner.
Suddenly relocated to the camp at Manzanar, Ruth and Frank’s extended family must endure it for close to four years. They uphold Japanese culture and community amidst camp politics, protests, violence and the government’s call for internees to swear a loyalty oath -- which splits the family, tragically, along generational lines. Brennert’s well-researched description of these California camps – though deeply humane in comparison to the Nazi genocide -- is the heart of the book’s drama, and opens our eyes to a wounded aspect of the Japanese-American experience.
The book’s final third comes as a salve. We learn that Ruth’s birth mother, Rachel, has been relieved of her leprosy by new sulfa drugs and can freely travel. The two are reunited, Ruth learns the truth of her biological parentage, and a family history is made whole. Brennert’s writing – workmanlike in the camp section – comes alive in his blending of ethnic language and his descriptions of Hawaii’s volcanic splendor (“The sky above Diamond Head was a spray of gold as the sun seemed to rise up out of the crater itself”). From the pain of Moloka’i, he crafts a novel of illumination and affection.