John Tayman: Book on Leprosy Settlement Draws Fire

Historians in the News

new book about a dark chapter in Hawaiian history, when thousands of people with leprosy were forced to live on a remote outcropping of the island of Molokai, has upset some former patients of the settlement and raised delicate questions about how much deference should be paid to them.

"The Colony: The Harrowing True Story of the Exiles of Molokai," by John Tayman, has garnered critical praise. But complaints by former patients and people close to them about how the book treats their stories, as well as claims of inaccuracies and sensationalism, has led to a loose campaign to discredit the book by the former patients, some Hawaii historians and the state's lawmakers and governor.

"The tacit understanding we have here in Hawaii is the former patients of Kalaupapa" — the name for the settlement — "are entitled to a higher degree of respect and privacy and deference than the rest of us," said Representative Ed Case, Democrat of Hawaii, who criticized the book's narrative style and what he called an "abbreviated, subjective treatment."

Mr. Tayman, 44, of New York City, spent more than three years researching and writing "The Colony," his first book. He said he was surprised, and saddened, to see the support of the very people the book seeks to elevate disappear, but that the readers who experience the human triumphs within the settlement far outnumber the detractors.

"I never saw it as a story that belonged to a specific culture, any more than I saw it as a Hawaiian story," Mr. Tayman said in an interview. "I just sort of saw it as an American story more than anything else, or a human story. I never really encountered that — 'What's a mainlander doing here, telling this story?' — until the book was published."

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