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Frequently Asked Questions: "Running from Moloka'i"


What inspired your interest in Hansen’s Disease (leprosy)?

     This topic interested me even as a child.  Visiting the Hansen’s Disease settlement on the island of Moloka’i (it is now a National Park) brought that interest in greater focus.  At the invitation of the social worker there, I flew over in a tiny plane, bumped along a narrow landing strip on the small peninsula at Kalaupapa, and came to a stop near a sea of crosses.  Between 1866 and today, close to 8,000 patients have died there.  The social worker and I held a two-day class to help the medical staff address ongoing conflicts with the patients.  I could understand the long history of resentment on the part of the patients.  “All they do is cut you up.”  I did not know, at the time, that my two days at Kalaupapa would lead to a book.

Where did you get the idea for RUNNING FROM MOLOKA’I?

     I was standing in the stacks of the Univ of Hawaii archives, perusing stories of old Hawaii.  I came across a very brief reference to something in the later 1800’s.  A Hawaiian woman on Maui was confiding in a young trusted pastor.  There were Hawaiians hidden by their families, she cautiously told him.  Not just on Maui—on all the islands. 

     Hidden?  From whom?  Why?   Two lines of text.  But it riveted me.  I searched and searched.

map of hawaii colored pretty.jpg

Kalaupapa Peninsula

Honolulu & 

Nu'uanu Valley

Was this difficult to research?


It is really difficult to research what has intentionally remained hidden!  Almost without exception, in the 1800’s anyway, accounts of life in Hawaii were recorded by foreigners.  Also, it was foreigners who wrote the laws of exile and enforced them.  So, would Hawaiian families go around telling foreigners where they had hidden their loved one to avoid the law of exile?  No; it was kept very, very quiet.  So quiet that as I said, above, I found almost no reference to it at all.  Legislative papers in the 1880’s mention, briefly, that some were being hidden, eluding examination by the Board of Health.  So, it made sense that documents from those years, written by foreigners, would have little if anything about this. 

My search grew in ever enlarging circles, with more questions.  I found a reference to bounty hunters. 

What this meant:  I had to research around and around the edges and inch toward the center of what was going on behind the scenes.  Based on my research, this story reflects what the situation is likely to have been.  In writing historical fiction, sometimes that’s all we can do:  gather the best sources we can, dilute them to what is most pertinent, most honest and feels most real, and make our best inferences.  I do expect to fall short, but where I have erred, I hope it has been on the side of compassion. 

Writing a story about something as well hidden as this topic has been like trying to tie a shoe with a shoestring made from a piece of thread…too loose, and it falls apart; too tight, and it breaks.    


What was clear was this:  by the 1880’s, and affecting all the islands, ninety per cent of the Hawaiians had died from foreign diseases.  And now, the lepela—leprosy.  The Hawaiians and the Board of Health were like oil and water as to what should be done with those afflicted with the disease.  The Board of Health, with the full weight of the law, banished to Moloka’i those with the disease. 

What About the Characters?


The silence…the hiding of loved ones…a matter life and death.  This formed the heart of my story.  I wanted to explore:  what does it do to a family when one parent stands on one side of the issue, and the other parent on the other side?  Where one parent is a physician for the Board of Health, diagnosing and signing papers to exile to Moloka’i those with the disease…and the other parent is full Hawaiian who cannot abide the law and is walking her own silent path?  How does this impact their mixed-race daughter—a fifteen-year-old girl who feels adrift between two parents divided to the bone on this issue?  In the long shadow of the disease is 16-year-old Keahi, the boy she loves.  A number of characters in the story are actual historical figures.

I have tried to faithfully blend factual events with fictionalized events.


Why do you write historical fiction?

It is a way to learn more about and breathe life into a historical setting that intrigues me.  The research, with all its unexpected twists and turns and layers of truth, can be addicting.  But at some point, even as you feel you could go on forever learning all this wonderful ‘stuff,’ you need to sit back and “Stop. Just stop!”  But assiduous research is essential: it provides the bones of a truthful and believable context for your story.  The ideas prevalent at a time in history are every bit as important as the facts.  Someone once said that history is what it is at the time it is happening.  There’s no way around the truth that this part of Hawaiian history is ugly.  You ground yourself in an actual historical setting full of conflict and opposing ideas, create characters who reflect these conflicts, then tell the story wanting to be told.  Ruta Sepetys says it well:  “Through historical fiction we can give voice to those who will never have a chance to tell their story.”  That is true in RUNNING FROM MOLOKA’I.  They did not want their story told.  It was too dangerous.


What was the most difficult part of writing the book?

Gaining permission to interview a man named Bernard Punikai’a.  He was a Hansen’s Disease patient.  I had been forewarned:  this would not come easily, if at all!  Over and over, the patients had been burned by authors and filmmakers and reporters—their stories sensationalized, taken advantage of and maligned.  Inevitably, Bernard wanted absolutely nothing to do with another haole foreigner wanting to write another story about leprosy in Hawaii.  And how could I blame him?  He repeatedly refused my written requests.  Finally (through someone he did trust) he learned more about the story I wanted to tell and agreed to meet with me.  His choice of location:  Jack-in-the-Box, King Street, Honolulu.  He arrived on his little motorized scooter—after years of surgery on his feet, he could no longer walk.  I intentionally arrived with no pen, no paper, no computer, no notes.

After 1.5 hours of grilling me (I smile as I recall how unmercifully) on the history of leprosy in Hawaii, Bernard provided a richness to my understanding that of course I could never have received from research.   I wanted to know what had happened to Bernard as that handsome little boy taken from his family at the age of seven and not terribly long after, delivered to the distant shore of an isolated peninsula.  Before we parted--I never saw him again--I promised I would not publish the book without his blessing.  A few years later his kokua (caregiver) read the final story to Bernard before his death (he was blind by then), and he gave the story his blessing. Running from Moloka'i is dedicated to Bernard as a way of thanking him for his trust.

How contagious is Hansen’s Disease?  Is it under control?

Hansen’s Disease is not easy to get.  Only about 5% of the population can even contract it, and then only from prolonged exposure.  Worldwide, there are still millions of cases.  But since 1969, medications have allowed the disease to be brought under control, though not technically ‘cured’ (i.e., entirely gone). 

A doctor in the late 1880’s inoculated leprosy serum into numerous kokua caregivers at Kalaupapa (oddly, at their own request which is addressed in the story).  Incomprehensible as it may seem, they wanted the disease for reasons that made sense to them at the time, largely related to qualifying for government food rations from which they were excluded because they did not have the disease.   The doctor reported no success.  The famous experiment of intentionally inoculating Keanu (the man convicted of murder, who agreed to inoculation with the disease instead of being hanged), led to an unknown outcome:  he did develop the disease, but it was later learned that other members of his family were afflicted.  He may have contracted the disease from them. 

Are any of the characters real historical figures?

Yes, several.  Father Damien, the Catholic priest who lived with and cared for those with the disease.  He has become a saint for his work at Kalaupapa.  Dr. Arning, who studied leprosy and inoculated Keanu. Keanu, the murderer who agreed to be inoculated to escape a hanging.  Captain Newell of the Amy Turner barkentine, and Kalua, the boy who spent four years stowing away on the Amy Turner, trying to fulfil his dream of getting to Boston to go to school in America. 

Will there be a sequel? 

I hope so.  If so, it will be the engaging (but also tragic) story of Kalua.  His dream began at the age of eleven, in Hawaii.  His is one of the stories I have carried around in my head for years, wondering if it will ever fully be told.  It seems to be another of those amazing stories lost between the lines of history. 

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