Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Review: No Footprints in the Sand by Henry Kalalahilimoku Nalaielua

As I mentioned in my previous post, I tend to use books as a way of researching something I'm interested in.  Lately, that interest has been more centered on learning more about locations and their cultures.  As part of that, I did a little research on books about or set in Hawaii and found No Footprints in the Sand available in an ebook format, read a sample of the book, and became even more interested in reading Henry Nalaielua's life story.

Synopsis:  From Goodreads, "When Henry Nalaielua was diagnosed with Hansen's disease in 1936 and taken from his home and family, he began a journey of exile that led him to Kalaupapa--the remote settlement with the tragic history on the Hawaiian island of Moloka'i. This is Henry's story--an unforgettable memoir of the boy who grew to build a full and joyous life at Kalaupapa, and still calls it home today. No Footprints in the Sand is one of only a few memoirs ever shared with the public by a Kalaupapa patient. Its intimacy and candor make it, in the words of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet W.S. Merwin, "a rare and precious human document." Nalaielua's story is an inspiring one; despite exile, physical challenges and the severing of family ties, he has faced life -- as an artist, musician and historian -- with courage, honesty, hope and humor."

Review:  For anyone who has ever watched the classic movie Ben Hur, there is this gut-wrenching moment in the film where Ben Hur goes to this rocky canyon to visit his mother and sister, who have been afflicted with leprosy.  They have been cast out by society, with only basket deliveries of food being let down into their valley.  This scene has stuck with me for a very long time, and I've always thought in the back of my mind, "How did they get sick, and do people get sick like that today?"

The answer to this question is a definite yes, as people continue to be diagnosed with Hansen's disease, or leprosy, as it has been known for centuries.  As Henry mentions in his autobiography, leprosy is an inflammatory term that continues to be confusing and frightening to most people.  In fact, reading the autobiography caused me to do a bit of a search into the ways one would get "leprosy," and I have to say that even the World Health Organization doesn't seem to be exactly clear on how you actually get the disease.  They do seem to know that it's a virus, caught through a bacteria, but not the exact ways in which you actually would pick it up, so you can avoid them.  It seems then that the not knowing is the scariest part of the disease, since it can not only shorten one's life with painful disorders, but also marginalize them in any community.  The good news today is that there are medications that can dramatically improve the lives of those with Hansen's disease.

Henry Nalaielua's autobiography was a captivating read, and one that I could hardly put down at night.  In the partial pidgin voice of Henry, himself, the story develops in a straight-forward sort of way that showed his bright personality, and positive outlook.  You couldn't help but love Henry right away. As a young boy on the Big Island, Henry contracted Hansen's disease and was sent away from his family to Honolulu to the hospital, and later to the leper colony at Kalaupapa on Molokai.  This famous colony was established by the famous Catholic Father Damien, who also fell to the disease there.  Throughout his life, Henry seemed to not let his disease keep him from having a life of his own.  He held multiple jobs, married twice, had two daughters, and traveled to many places in the United States and around the world as he worked to improve his own health, and to forward the education of others on the disease that affected so many.  

This autobiography is full of heart, culture, and spirit.  The life that Henry led is amazing, and I found everything about him intriguing.  There is a good amount of Hawaiian culture and spirit in the entire story, and Henry really captured the spirit of the people in the islands.  His drive and endeavor to live his life and take it for what it was, without too much self-indulgent pity was inspiring to me.  From his early experience as a young boy paraded in front of doctors to show the stage of his disease, to his later life traveling to Father Damien's later beatification as a representative of Kalaupapa, all made for a most amazing and interesting life story.

This autobiography is short, less than 200 pages, but full of heart and substance.  The bulk of the text bounces from standard English to pidgin, reflecting Henry's voice and that of his writer.  Although casual and informal in its presentation, I found No Footprints in the Sand to be a captivating read that has me searching out additional books about Kalaupapa, Hansen's disease, and the amazing Hawaiian culture.

*FTC Disclosure:  This review was based off a personal electronic copy of the book.


  1. This sounds like a book I would love to read. Thank you for the review.

  2. This one sounds so interesting. I really enjoyed MOLOKA'I - this sounds similar, but better because it's written by someone who really went through the experience. Thanks for the rec!

  3. So is the Hanson's Disease contagious, then?

  4. Iris--It really was great, and a quick read. I can't imagine having his life experiences, and I'm glad someone thought to interview him and get it down on paper!

    Susan--I'm just reading Moloka'i right now, and I have to say that the two books (so far) work really well together. Since this is non-fiction, you get that view of Hansen's disease.

    Heidenkind--They "think" it's contagious, but I couldn't find a single source that could say one way or another. They say that people with the disease do not have to be isolate though. I know. It's interesting, confusing, and yes...still a little frightening. From what I read, people who get the disease often get it as children, and it appears later. They even think there might be a genetic component. The sites I went to did seem to think that you're more likely to contract the bacteria out living your life than from simple contact with another human being. How that works, I don't know! My friend who is about to graduate from med school has actually treated a person with this disease, and she said that they can live very active lives. In fact, the medications that people can take if they get it, can pretty much eliminate the negative nerve damage and lesions that people previously suffered from. It's a pretty interesting subject, and I have to say that I think I spent as much time reading up on the disease as I did reading the autobiography! LOL.

  5. Becky-Thank you so much for reading and writing about leprosy, which is still a cruel reality in many developing countries where 250,000 new cases are diagnosed each year. American Leprosy Missions has been a leader in the fight against this disease for more than 100 years. Leprosy is mildly contagious, caused by bacteria (Mycobacterium leprae) related to the one that causes tuberculosis. It can be transmitted like the flu, but 95% of the world population have natural immunity to leprosy. To learn more about leprosy, our vaccine research, and the work of American Leprosy Missions to cure and care for people affected by leprosy worldwide, please visit www.leprosy.org.