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  • Kalaupapa: A Collective Memory by Anwei Skinsnes Law
  • Michele Curran Cornell
Kalaupapa: A Collective Memory. By Anwei Skinsnes Law. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2012. 600 pp. Paperback $32.99.

Kalaupapa is a community located on the Hawaiian Island of Molokaí. From 1866 to 1969, approximately eight thousand people, 90 percent of whom were native Hawaiians, were torn from their families and forced to live their lives in isolation from the rest of society on Kalaupapa because these individuals were suspected victims of leprosy (also known as Hansen’s Disease). This nearly six-hundred-page book showcases the emotional stories and contributions to the community of the men, women, and children who were sent to live at Kalaupapa, their compassionate caretakers, and the family members from whom they were separated. Intensively researched, the book is a historical narrative comprised of letters, diaries, oral histories, government documents, Board of Health reports, petitions, newspapers, and other archival sources. Kalaupapa is divided into five parts and organized chronologically in forty-three chapters, and the book has 295 black-and-white photographs that provide readers with a visual connection to the people. Though moving and informative, the work lacks consistent and cohesive analysis; it was never Law’s intention, however, to convey her interpretation or analysis. As she notes in the preface, “This book strives [End Page 152] to enable people to define themselves and their experience, in their own words, as much as possible” (xiii).

Still, readers will take away several messages from the work. First of all, original isolation policies secluding those with leprosy went against traditional Hawaiian culture. Families were separated and unable to care for one another, which caused vast emotional trauma and a deep sense of personal loss. Second, for the first thirty-some years, Kalaupapa was a place of great suffering as the government failed to provide fully for those sent there—it was referred to as “Mauhaalelea (a place of abandonment)” (24). Third, during the early 1900s, because of the efforts of community leaders, Kalaupapa underwent a complete transformation. During this time a better hospital and a factory to make poi (a staple food in the diet of Native Hawaiians, made from the taro plant) were built. After this point, for the most part, Kalaupapa was no longer susceptible to food shortages and the quality of life began to improve. This allowed for clubs and recreational activities to flourish, increasing the morale of the people and their sense of community. Fourth, the people who lived at Kalaupapa embraced their personal interests and talents and refused to be defined by leprosy. Their vibrant community worked to overcome the negative societal perceptions of lepers and encouraged education about the disease so they would be treated with dignity and humanity. And finally, as successful medical treatment advanced into a cure, the people of Kalaupapa were faced with forced removal from the place that had evolved from their land of exile into their cherished home. The community worked together with the National Park Service to see that current residents were able to stay and that Kalaupapa would be preserved as a historic park to memorialize and honor those who lived and died there.

The preservation of Kalaupapa history and the lives of those who were a part of the community was made possible, in part, by an oral history project that Law crafted with the assistance of various organizations and individuals. Of the methodology employed, Law explains, “We defied traditional theories that you could only do oral histories if you were ‘trained,’ that you shouldn’t use videotape, and that you had to know the right questions to ask. Instead, we simply brought people together and listened to what was important to them” (xvii). Although vague on additional methodological techniques, the book showcases quotations, information, experiences, and emotions from over two hundred hours of oral history interviews conducted between 1976 and 2008. The initial chapters of the text utilize these oral histories sparingly and none are referenced in chapters four through twenty-three, which focus on the time period between 1866 and 1901. The oral histories, however, become an important part of the narrative developed in the last...


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pp. 152-154
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