What I've been reading
This is a gripping book about Hawaii's leper colony on Molokai, which opened in 1866 and didn't officially stop accepting new patients until 1969, a pretty shocking fact if you think about it. Tayman tells a fascinating tale that has some problems, but on the whole exposes a dark corner of our history, one that is relevant even today.
The colony on Molokai came about because Hawaiian doctors began to notice that the disease was gaining strength in the islands. Leprosy, long a misunderstood disease, thanks in large part, says Tayman, to the Bible, sent a scare into the islanders and they over-reacted. It's perhaps a natural reaction when confronted with something one doesn't understand to want to put that thing as far away as possible, and the Hawaiian officials found a perfect spot: a peninsula on the northern shore of Molokai, cut off from the rest of the island by imposing cliffs, buffeted by the waves and the winds so that even getting to it by boat was a terrifying experience. The health officials began scouring the islands for lepers and shipping them off to the colony, basically dumping them on the land and leaving them. Only as an afterthought did they decide to actually provide some care for them.
Tayman splits the book into basically two parts. The first part is better, as it tells the story of the founding of the colony, the struggles of the patients to get it going, and the stories of the people who volunteered to go to the colony to help out, most notably Father Damien, a Belgian priest, and Mother Marianne Cope, a nun from Syracuse. The stories of the colony from its inception through the early twentieth century are gripping and full of tragedy and minor triumphs and bigotry and transcendence. It's a wonderful read, as Tayman tracks the islanders' gradual awakening to what was going on in the colony and the lepers' efforts to hide their disease or flee into the hinterlands. He also goes into the history of the disease quite nicely. Leprosy in the Bible, he points out, probably wasn't what we think of as leprosy. Biblical "leprosy" simply meant any skin blemish, which is not a good symptom of leprosy. When the Bible says they are "unclean," it could even mean they are simply sinners and have no disease whatsoever. When a Greek translation of the Bible came out, the word for "ritually impure" was translated as "lepra," which means "rough and scaly." Arabic doctors used the word "judham" to describe true leprosy, and in the eleventh century, a monk translating medical texts simply substituted "lepra" - a disease of the soul - for "judham" - a disease of the body. Thus leprosy became linked to an idea of impurity. Tayman points out that leprosy itself is very difficult to contract. Skin-to-skin transmission is "virtually impossible." Even if the bacilli gets into a body, 95% of people have a natural immunity to the disease. Yes, it's a horrific disease once it takes hold, but there are two different kinds, one which is not fatal and impossible to transmit. Tayman blends this knowledge nicely in with the narrative history of the colony, showing how centuries of prejudice swept the officials along until they simply condemned thousands of people, who could never see their families again. Children born to couples on the colony were taken away to foster homes.
When Tayman gets to the more modern days, however, his book becomes a bit less interesting. It's not bad, but it becomes more languid and episodic. He begins to jump around a bit more, especially once he reaches the 1930s and is able to base his history on interviews with some of the patients (as of 2003, there were still people at the colony, ones who had been there for decades and wanted to stay when the government stopped exiling people to it). Therefore, he focuses on four separate patients to the detriment of telling the bigger story of the colony, and he skips back and forth between the four people, and he loses a bit of the book's focus. Part of the reason is that he stops giving us a time frame - we know generally when things happen, but it would have been nice to read when one of the patients, for instance, graduated from college. It all seems to take place in an indeterminate time period from about 1975 to the present, and it adds to the looseness of the narrative. It doesn't ruin the book, because the stories he tells are interesting, but we lose a bit of the context of what is happening in the big wide world, which was a fascinating part of the first section of the book. It's a bit of a shame, but it shouldn't deter you from reading this.
One of the interesting things about reading this book recently is because I heard a few weeks ago that Pat Buchanan (I think) was blaming immigrants for bringing leprosy into the country. Now, Buchanan's an idiot, but CNN (or was it MSNBC?) reported it too, claiming that in the past three years, we've seen 7000 new cases of leprosy. 60 Minutes put the kibosh on that, pointing out that it's 7000 new cases in 30 years, but I get a bit peeved when a news organization doesn't do its homework. Tayman points out that we shouldn't even call it leprosy because of the negative connotations; it's called Hansen's disease after the man who discovered the bacillus. I'm sure a quick call to a doctor would have confirmed that. Also, for CNN (or MSNBC) to suggest that this would be a major epidemic, when leprosy is not that communicable, is just awful. Buchanan, of course, wants to scare everyone into deporting all those filthy immigrants. I guess I thought news organizations were above that. I know, silly me.
Another problem with the way Tayman writes the final section, and the problem with any book that relies on interviews and personal accounting, is the potential for controversy. Three of the people Tayman focuses on in the book have disavowed most of it, and even Tayman's movements into the colony have been questioned. It's an interesting side note to the book, but it doesn't change the fact that it's a very compelling read. Tayman's blog is here, by the way, if you're interested.