I have read very few earthquake books. We have several on our shelves about the earthquake that struck Haiti five years ago today, but reading them is more than I can handle yet. (Here I posted my thoughts about the earthquake book by Amy Wilentz. Earlier I read Kent Annan's book and wrote about it here.) I almost didn't read Hold Tight, Don't Let Go, by Laura Rose Wagner. Ultimately, though, I couldn't resist a YA novel (recommended for Grade 9 and up) about the earthquake, and I pre-ordered it. It came out on January 6th, and I started reading it right away.
"When it begins," Magdalie tells us, "I am shelling pigeon peas, pwa kongo, into a metal bowl under the almond tree in Madame Faustin's garden. I sit on the low wooden chair, my knees apart, the unshelled peas nestled in my old yellow skirt, so faded it's almost white....Then, out of nowhere, groans a deep, furious noise, a deafening growl and then a terrible shaking. The sound and the shaking become one sensation - I can't separate the two - and the world collapses. ...
Everything explodes in white: a chalky cloud of cement powder engulfs me, engulfs the house, engulfs the entire city of Port-au-Prince. With a roar we are all swallowed. The house is gone. The city is gone. The world is no wider than I am. I can't see more than inches from my face. Then the sound of the people rising up in prayer and song - the furious, screaming gratitude of the just saved. Jezi! Jezi! and Mèsi Seyè! Thank you, Lord! My knees are bleeding. The blood is warm. My bare toes flex, scrape the dust. Somehow, I am not dead. The pwa kongo are scattered around me."
We follow Magdalie from this point, as she faces both her grief and the enormous challenges of her new life. Wagner obviously knows and loves Haiti. (There are many Creole words sprinkled through the book, and a glossary at the end gives definitions. There's also a note about Haitian history.) She does a wonderful job of exploring the terrain of recovering from trauma, both the pain of loss and the joy to be alive. I loved the descriptions of ordinary Haiti, like a scene early in the book when Magdalie and her cousin Nadine have a manicure emergency in the tent camp where they live. It's such a perfect illustration of how life goes on even when everything has fallen apart. Here's a description of their tent home:
"A thick band of sunlight splashes across the inside of our home: the swept-dirt floor, the battered suitcases full of clothes, Tonton Élie's half-fixed circuit boards, and a huge wall calendar, distributed by Prestige beer, featuring two women in bikinis on a beach. All the noise of the camp flows into our private world: the revving of motorcycle taxis, the bleating of goats, the squalling of babies, the sound of a woman washing her clothes and singing an evangelical hymn."
Recalling her Manman, Magdalie says, "Manman believed in vodou, and she believed in the Church. She believed in healing plants and she believed in antibiotics. Manman could believe in everything. She had a lot of faith." Following her Manman's example, Magdalie seeks healing from her quake-induced anger in vodou. She also faces disappointment and exploitation, and finds friendship, as she tries to find other ways to make her life work out. Will she get a visa to leave Haiti? Will she find someone to give her a start so she can finance her education? Will she figure out whom she can trust, as a young girl in a tent camp? Will she be able to trust in the future enough to get close to people at all? "Since January 12," she comments (so accurately), "every good-bye feels like it might be forever."
Wagner doesn't try to hide from the harsh realities of life, but nor
does she miss what is beautiful about Haiti. A trip Magdalie takes to
the countryside shows the advantages and disadvantages of city and
country living, and how residents of each environment tend to
romanticize the other. Magdalie describes the countryside near Jeremie this way: "There are trees, trees, trees as far as I can see, and a shimmering ocean brighter blue than a Samaritan's Purse tarp." There is beauty in the city, too: "our camp is beautiful, framed against the dusk, in the darkening pink of the hazy sky."
I think this book succeeds so well because it is such an honest, unblinking portrait of one person's experience. It doesn't attempt to explain or pontificate, but compassionately shows us Magdalie's life. The characters are believable, defying categorization just like real people do. While at times the book was painful to read, there was some catharsis through Magdalie's experience. And I loved it that Wagner ended with a hopeful imagining of Haiti's future in January 2020. "I am only one witness, of millions," Magdalie says. "It doesn't matter what I say. It doesn't change a thing." And yet her story does help others enter into the depth and complexity of life in Haiti, a country which is so much more than what you see in the news, so much more than "the poorest country in the western hemisphere."
Thank you, Magdalie, and Laura Rose Wagner, for sharing this ugly, beautiful, tragic, redemptive story, and reminding us: "hold tight, don't let go."
This post is linked to the January 16th Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon.
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