Monday, August 18, 2008

Healing Water

Leprosy. The mere mention of the disease (now called Hansen's Disease) conjures up images of disfigured skin and isolation. Those with leprosy were feared, ridiculed, and isolated, from pre-Biblical times (possibly 600 B.C.E.) up to more recent eras. If there is a children's/YA book featuring Hansen's Disease, I wasn't aware of it until I read Healing Waters.

The Kingdom of Hawai'i was at a crossroads in the mid to late 1800s. The local community was turning away from its native religion of Hawaiian spirits with the mass introduction of Catholic, Protestant, and Mormon missionaries. Not only was the Christian religion introduced to the islands, but leprosy was also brought to the islands.

At first, people with leprosy were treated at home, until the king enacted an isolation policy (which wasn't repealed until 1969). Anyone-regardless of age-was exiled to the leprosy settlement on the island of Moloka'i...which is what happened to thirteen year old Pia. Forced from his family and abandoned by his best friend, he quickly discovers that "there are no laws" at the settlement. Newcomers must attach themselves to a protector in order to survive, in exchange for favors.

Homesick for his family and distressed about his friend's abandonment, Pia fights for survival and becomes a completely different person than the one he was at home. His friend unexpectedly shows up at the colony, which throws his new existence into disarray.

Missionaries briefly visited and established churches, but there was rarely a constant religious presence, particularly for the Catholics, who depended upon a priest to consecrate Mass. Enter a young Belgian priest by the name of Father Damien, who would forever change the lawless colony.

Healing Water is a harsh and remarkable account of this extraordinary era in Hawaiian history. The perspective is entirely from young Pia's perspective (the native Hawai'ian perspective). Not only is this a look at the leprosy colony, it is also a look at the changing face of Hawai'i from an isolated community to one influenced by many outside forces.

Hawai'ian vocabulary is sprinkled throughout the text, which makes the inclusion of a glossary very welcome. Further information about Father Damien, who is expected to be canonized early next year, is also included, as is a brief history of leprosy. For an extraordinary and unique historical fiction read, you can't go wrong if you pick up Healing Water.

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