One-year-old Ruth is taken in the night from her place of birth at the leper colony on Moloka’i to a school for girls on Oahu. There she learns her numbers and letters, and dreams of the possibilities of being adopted, yet, she is fearful that her half-Japanese and half-Hawaiian ancestry will scare away prospective families. But she strikes gold with the loving Watanabe family who have been looking for a daughter to join their household. Ruth lives with the family for some time in Honolulu and is brought up learning Japanese traditions with the other Watanabe children.
Soon enough, the Watanabe family takes an opportunity to leave Hawaii for the California Central Valley and join relatives in a farming venture. Ruth’s uncle has mismanaged his farm and it takes years to set things right, but when the depression hits, they lose everything. And once again the family is shaken when Pearl Harbor is attacked and Executive Order 9066 sends them to the Manzanar Interment Camp.
Daughter of Moloka’i is broken up into three even parts: before the war, the stay at the interment camp, and the aftermath of the war. Brennert does a stellar job focusing the narrative on Ruth’s character while also spending enough time with each of the other characters to fully flesh them out.
Spanning over five decades, the novel does have a tendency to gloss over some aspects of the character’s lives, but it makes up for those slights with a sweeping vision of endurance and the historical details. I have read Farewell to Manzanar several times while teaching it to my high school students. I was happy to see the author mention its use as a reference in his afterward. It’s particulars like this that give me confidence in the accuracy of Brennart’s writing.
Impeccably researched and moving, the second half of Brennert’s family odyssey, Daughter of Moloka’i, is a book that can be enjoyed on many levels. It’s a vivid piece of American history and a stunning portrait of familial strength.
4.5 out of 5 stars
Releases on Feb 18th
Thank you to NetGalley, St. Martin’s Press, and Alan Brennert for an advanced copy for review.