Leprosy in Literature

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
―Soren Kierkegaard

Reading a diverse and complex number of different books is important to our understanding of past, present and future. I could quote any number of people about the importance of remembering history. Yet still countries and people doom themselves to past mistakes, we all have this tendency to a point. One of my greatest loves in reading is history {American and otherwise (fiction and non)}as there are so many experiences in this world that can be held up to show us both the best and worse of humanity in the same event. Leprosy is a topic that has interested me for over two years now. A disease that for most of history caused mankind to shun and fear their neighbors and family. Around the world people diagnosed with Hansen’s disease were shipped off to remote islands and in many cases left to fend for themselves in the most inhospitable of places.  Hawaii, Greece, Louisiana, Makogai, Mokopuna and D’Arcy Island were just a few of the leper colonies spread out across the world.

The first book I ever read on this subject was called Moloka’i by Alan Brennert. This was a fictional novel set in Hawaii and mostly centering on the leper colony of Kalaupapa. The story follows a young girl who dreams of traveling the far and wide as her father does.  Before she can make any headway with that idea she is diagnosed with leprosy and sent off to Kalaupapa. A young girl far from home, scared not only of the life before her but those who surround her new home. She grows to discover so much about not only herself but the world, politics, culture, and family. Large amounts of fact are spread throughout this novel tying the book and history together. While this novel is fiction the story is very similar to those faced by lepers all over the world at one point or another. There are still individuals living in Kalaupapa today who suffered and were forced to live in isolation, these people continue living there by what is now their own choice.

In the Sanctuary of Outcasts by Neil W White III. This book was set in Carville, Louisiana and is a memoir focusing on a short period of Neil’s life from 1993 for the next 18 months.  I will admit White himself is no where near my favorite author, his manner is both cavalier and arrogant. Convicted of financial fraud by the FBI, White spend just over one year in a Leper colony meets prison located in Carville. Before his arrival White did not realize this prison also consisted of one of the last leper colonies in the United States of America.  Other “white-collar” criminals as well as White mix with the lepers. The Carville facility seemed to exist in an alternate universe, separate entirely from the rest of the world. The  people hidden for their entire lives for a treatable disease is heartbreaking, most of the permanent residents had lived there for decades. White forms close relations after some time with members of this world and leaves after completing his sentence a changed man. A very fast read and an exceptional part of this countries history. Carville was the last active leper colony in the United States. The one in Hawaii was no longer taking or holding patients.

I have read four or five other books about this that I would mostly happily recommend if the subject interests you. These are the first two I ever read and lead to my ongoing buying/searching out of novels on this subject.
Kalaupapa is still around today and in 2016 celebrated (if this can be considered the correct word) 100 years in 2016. Visitors are allowed but limited. https://www.nps.gov/kala/index.htm
Carville, Louisiana is no longer a prison or a leper colony but is open for tours https://www.hrsa.gov/hansens-disease/museum/index.html

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