A rocky and windswept peninsula on the north coast of Molokai was chosen because escape was difficult. The seas were rough and cliffs thousands of feet tall separated it from the rest of the island. The land was purchased cheap and the earliest exiles were often dropped in the surf and told to swim for shore. A lawlessness pervaded the settlement and given the appearance of some of the exiles, it seemed a hellish place to those sent there and any who saw it. Tayman describes the history of the colony from the early days until the early 2000s. He tells the stories of many who were sent there over the years as well as the efforts of some to alleviate the suffering such as Father Damien, the Catholic priest who eventually shared his flock's fate, and Joseph Dutton, a Civil War soldier who just wanted to do good. A cure for leprosy was found in the late 1940s which can halt or prevent the disease, but cannot reverse the damage already caused, and Tayman sounds a much more hopeful note in his account toward the end.
"The more we suffer, the more strength we have. The more suffering, the closer we are to one another. Life is that way. If you haven't suffered, then you don't know what joy is. The others may know something about joy, but those who have gone through hell and high water, I think they feel the joy deeper."
As much as I enjoy all kinds of histories, I find that those of disease and sickness are often the more human side of history. Toward the end of the book Tayman focuses on four individuals who were exiled in their youth, and he shows them not as 'lepers' but as real people whose ordinary hopes and dreams were interrupted by their disease. I particularly liked the story of Makia who was exiled as a boy and yet earned a college degree after he was cured, in spite of being blind from the disease and not being able to read braille because he didn't have feeling in his fingers. It's a fascinating history told with a very human viewpoint.