I have been in a reading slump. Most people pick up reading in the summer but I find myself pulled in multiple directions with little spare time. Feeling guilty about this, I downloaded The Pearl Diver by Jeff Talarigo and started squeezing reading back into my life.
I like historical fiction and this book promised me that. The cover spoke to me as soon as I saw it: muted photo of a woman sitting on a boat looking out at the ocean with mountains in the background. As is typical of me reading historical fiction, I quickly found myself googling various pieces of history as the author weaves a fictional story
The Book: The Pearl Diver by Jeff Talarigo
The story begins with a nineteen year old girl living in Japan. Her job is that of diver. She dives the ocean around her village daily to find sea urchins, lobsters, and oysters. She is the youngest diver and hopes to become the best learning from the older divers. In her short time diving she has already found pearls, not as many as some of the other divers but she dreams of more. One day after diving, the other divers notice that she has a mark on her body; not suspecting the horrible truth they tease her that a boyfriend left the mark for her. It was not until she suffered a diving accident that left her cut and bleeding that she realized anything was wrong; for she knew she was cut but there was no pain. A doctor informed her that she had leprosy. In 1948, at the age of nineteen, after a huge diagnosis, she is forced to leave her job, her family, her home and her dreams to go live at the Negashima Leprosarium. She is subjected to chemical baths and public humiliations. She is forced to stop using her birth name and becomes a number. The officials at the leprosarium even take her birth date away and forces her to select a new name.
She becomes known as Miss Fuji, a name selected by a happy moment in her life, and becomes a caretaker to the other 2,000 patients on the island. Miss Fuji’s life and story is told through artifacts found on the island of Negashima. Some of the stories are painfully sad while others offer a glimpse at the strength of the patients who lived in the leprosarium. Miss Fuji is one of the lucky ones whose disease reacts to the painful treatments. As she cares for others she struggles to make sense of her world and the world she was forced to become a part of.
My reaction to the story:
I will admit I knew what leprosy was before I started reading the book but that was the end of my knowledge. I did not realize people were forced to go live in colonies. They could marry but not have children. I had no idea their families turned their backs on them and treated them as if they were dead. Of course, in my lifetime, the medical community has educated themselves on leprosy and our understanding of the disease and treatment has much improved since 1948. It is with sadness that I read about how Miss Fuji and the other patients were treated.
Having not lived through this event the only thing that I can relate it to is the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 80’s. Initial reaction then was to separate, shun, and protect ourselves by shutting the door to others. History is full of our mistakes as a society: Leprosarium’s, Japanese Internment Camps, pregnant teens, gay/lesbians, even children with polio were all viewed as dangerous or burdens to the general population and separated from their families and support systems.
Fear is a dangerous thing. If we face every single situation from a place of fear are we not likely to repeat the mistakes of our ancestors? Can we reach a place of concern where we worry about everyone including the ones inflicted? Can we set aside ourselves long enough to learn from others? Can we organize ourselves quicker so we react to facts and not hysteria? Yes, the medical community has more resources now than we did back then. Most of us do. But, I am not sure those resources change the way we initially react to new things. Fear is a powerful emotion. And I am left wondering just how different are we than those who were in control and made decisions back then?
These are things that I am pondering after reading The Pearl Diver by Jeff Talarigo. Does anyone else have these reactions to books?