Leprosy just isn’t the hot topic of children’s historical fiction it could be. I mean, walk up to a kid and ask them what their primary associations with leprosy (today called Hansen’s Disease) are and if they mention anything it’ll probably have to involve Jesus in some way. Historical fiction for kids based around diseases crop up, but somehow this topic has remained fairly untouched. I mean, yellow fever was in Laurie Halse Anderson’s Fever, 1793, and smallpox is written about with a fair amount of frequency. And of course there was the topic of polio in Joyce Moyer Hostetter’s, Blue a couple years ago. Hostetter now turns her gaze to another disease, but with her primary focus on the island of Moloka’i and its Kalaupapa peninsula around the late 1800s. In a year when historical fiction for kids has been dominated by Jim Crow, Civil War, and World War II titles, it’s a relief to read a book as simultaneously engrossing and well researched as Healing Water. The kind of realistic fiction that’ll suck in the young readers the minute they start turning the pages.
Pia got off to a bad start, no question. If he hadn’t gotten angry with his fellow passengers on the boat that stole him away from his family and sent him to the leper colony of Moloka’i it might have been okay. If he hadn’t run away that first day and missed his initial rations it might have been okay. If he hadn’t aligned himself with the island’s most corrupt leader, if he hadn’t done the man’s bidding, if he hadn’t turned off his own heart and conscience . . . . but he did. And why? Because the man he admired, the man who had helped raise him and love him, his best friend and father figure, Kamaka, betrayed him. When Pia got the first signs of leprosy, Kamaka disappeared from his life and it takes all the boy’s will to forget him. Now Kamaka has reentered his life unexpectedly, and Pia must figure out whether or not to forgive this man’s betrayal or to seek his protection on this strangely lawless island.
To place a story within the context of history isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. To make it come together as a coherant tale you need to do what Healing Water has done here. This title works because if you set out to write a book about a historical moment and the main character walks around thinking, “Gee, what a significant time I live in,” you have yourself a pretty dull piece of work. Healing Water, on the other hand, focuses on something a lot of kids can identify with; Friendship, betrayal, loneliness, and moral complicity. Ostensibly the focus of the piece is on Father Damien deVeuster, the man who spent his life dedicated to making a better life for the people sequestered on Moloka’i. But the relationships in this story are the glue.
It has never been easier to identify with a character either. When Pia gets angry with Kamaka you get angry right alongside him. You want to see that guy pay and pay hard. Heck, you may even think that Pia is letting Kamaka off too easily at times. I know that one of the themes of this book is forgiveness and what it means to forgive someone who has hurt you and feels bad about their own weaknesses. Still… the vindictive part of me wouldn’t have minded if Kamaka suffered one little kick more.
So the story works, but so too does the writing. The fact that Hostetter can write a great descriptive sentence doesn’t hurt matters any. I’m a sucker for lines like, “The ship pulled me away from our home, ripping me like bark from a tree.” Or when Pia is in the hospital and is visited by Kamaka’s tutu and she finds it hard to talk to him. “But Tutu, giver of hugs and playful swats on the bottom, could not speak without touching me. And touching she was not supposed to do.”
Sometimes I’ll start to read a work of historical fiction for kids and suddenly I’ll think to myself, “Uh-oh. There better be some backmatter to look through here.” It’s a crapshoot if I find what I’m looking for at the book’s end. More often than not I’ll find a one page Author’s Note with two or three websites included. Sometimes nothing will be there at all and I’ll return to my reading, growling inaudibly. And sometimes I’ll turn to the back and find a six-page historical note, a Timeline, notes that discuss things like the pronunciation of Hawaiian words, a Glossary, and a list of Resources including adult texts, suggested reading for kids, audiovisual references, websites, and places to visit to learn more. Honestly, it’s pretty rare to find 14 pages worth of reference text in a middle grade children’s novel. Would that it were more common. A reader knows to trust their author when they see that a little research has gone down.
Generally, when children read books in which a government agency has torn average citizens away from their loved ones and/or their home, it either involves the Jewish people during WWII or the American internment camps from the same time. Tearing away people from their families if they have leprosy is not unlike the Japanese-American interments if only because in both situations the government was acting out of fear. And fear, generally, is not a smart way to go about making decisions about people’s lives. Fear is the omnipresent force at work in “Healing Water” too. Pia fears for his survival, fears the man he works for, and each fear is reliant upon the other. Healing Water offers an escape from that trap and that fear. I wouldn’t call it an overtly religious book, but what it has to say about forgiving others as well as ourselves is a lesson worth reading and learning. Informative, touching, and hard to remove from your mind. A lesson in living life without pain.
On shelves now.
First Sentence: “The sheriff led us like criminals through the streets of Honolulu.”
Notes on the Cover: Kind of spare. Classy, sure, but this falls into the let’s-chop-off-the-kid’s-head trend that, mercifully, is falling out of favor. I don’t know that this is going to grab the average child reader like it should. A little color wouldn’t have been out of place. Still, it’s not bad, and the boy could certainly be Pia in happier days. There is nothing that dates this image.
- Learn the story behind the cover of the book on editor Lea Schizas’s blog here.
- You can read the bulk of the book here on Google Books.
- A recent interview with Ms. Hostetter is over at Tales From the Rushmore Kid.