Monday, May 21, 2012

Wade in a Little Deeper--a review of HEALING WATER by Joyce Moyer Hostetter

They tore children away from their families in hopes that they would find a new one when they landed on Moloka’i.  In the late 1800s, leprosy, a communicable disease imported from China, swept through the Hawaiian Islands.  In an attempt to contain the disease, those who suffered from what is now called Hansen’s Disease, were forced to relocate to a leper colony on the barely habitable Kalaupapa peninsula where anarchy and lawlessness reigned.  Children were conscripted to work for older residents who rose to power through thievery and bribery.  Still, there were many who starved.  Find out what happens to Pia, when he is exiled in

Healing Water: a Hawaiian Story by Joyce Moyer Hostetter

Pia adored his mother, sister, and his role model, Kamaka, who was like a brother to him. Then, one day, all of this is ripped away when Pia contracts leprosy. Kamaka abandons Pia before he is shipped to Moloka’i. In order to survive, Pia must harden his heart, using his anger and bitterness against Kamaka to survive. He is taken in as a house boy by the unscrupulous Boki, but enjoys an amount of security others on the island do not have. While he has a soft spot for Keona and Maka Nui, who remind him of his grandmother and sister, he seems destined for a life of ruthlessness until one day, Kamaka and his new wife, also become residents of Kalaupapa. The rift between Pia and Kamaka seems insurmountable until the arrival of Father Damien helps to heal old wounds that run far deeper than those which disfigure Pia's body.

The clear first-person voice of Pia in this book is believable. The opening chapter reads like the beginning of a good movie, as we first meet Pia being ripped away from the desperate last embrace of his mother and forced aboard a ship full of lepers. Hostetter adequately re-creates an old Honolulu, using vivid imagery: “Vendors sold oranges and pineapples, flower garlands and woven hats. Horse traders and businessmen called out for buyers.” She has researched the arrival of European and American missionaries, and Pia’s story is supported by a compelling, and sometimes heartbreaking, historical narrative. While it is clear that the book does not purport itself as an openly Christian narrative, I read the book as a story of redemption. Redemption for Pia, and for Kamaka, which is brought about through mercy, grace and forgiveness.

Selected Awards and Reviews
  • IRA Children's Book Award
  • Parents' Choice Silver Honor Award
“The struggle to forgive, and the hope that love brings are timeless themes that are presented in a powerful way”—Denise Moore, School Library Journal, July 2008

“Hostetter's meticulous research on the history of the leprosy settlement results in a believable account of what it must have been like to be a leper at the Kalawao settlement around the 1870s and 1880s.”—Hilary Crew, Voice of Youth Advocates, August 2008

Teaching Suggestions
The story of the Kalaupapa Leper Colony is not a well-known chapter in American history. It would make a welcome and diverse addition to any study of American Western Expansion. Hostetter’s Author’s Note and Resources are terrific starting points. The Molokai Visitors Center is a good starting point for learning the geography and general history of the island. More information of Father Damien can be found, along with a nice picture of his statue at the website of the National Statuary Hall collection.
Leprosy was a disease that used to isolate people and brand them as outcasts. In 1873, Dr. Gerhard Hansen identified the bacillus which caused the disease, and since 1941, leprosy has been successfully treated with drug therapy. It has been renamed Hansen’s Disease in honor of Dr. Hansen, although the term leper and leprosy still have negative and painful cultural connotations. This book would be a good tie-in for a beginning-level discussion of epidemiology and public policy. It is also an unusual look at the essential questions of how humanity creates outsiders. More information about Hansen’s Disease is available from the American Leprosy Mission ( or from IDEA—the International Organization for Integration, Dignity, and Economic Advancement (

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