|Popham Beach in Phippsburg, Maine on Christmas: do you see the question mark?|
Laura Rose Wagner, was trapped and injured in that earthquake while working on her PhD in Anthropology, but this debut young adult novel isn't her personal story. The protagonist is an impoverished 15-year-old Haitian girl. The only American character in the book is an insensitive photojournalist who objectifies people, although foreign aid, diluted by local corruption, helps the Haitians somewhat.
In the first chapter, before we know or care about the characters, the earthquake kills Magdalie's adopted mother/aunt. Mamman is crushed in the house in which she labored as an underpaid and overworked housemaid, hoping for a better life for her daughters. Mamman's biological daughter, Nadine, escapes to Florida to join her father, but Magdalie is stuck in the squalid relief camps in the care of her young "uncle," a reluctant provider. There is no money for school fees and barely enough for food. Cholera flows through the filthy outhouses. Thieves have free run of the broken city. Pretty girls often trade their bodies for necessities, but Madalie is not that desperate. Yet.
You can see the anthropologist's touch in the nuanced renderings of culture and relationships. Family in Haiti extends to include all relatives and even some friends and neighbors. Magdalie and Nadine are cousins raised as twin sisters, and following their aunt/mother's death, are cared for by a young man who is distantly related to them. Depression, anger and teenaged angst are treated as spiritual illness by a voodoo healer with positive results, due perhaps to introspection more than to magic. The well researched narrative teaches young readers about a foreign culture without being judgemental. There is a marvelous sense of place too, evoking all the senses. The book ends with an informative historical chapter about Haiti, which should be read first.
Hold Tight, Don't Let Go would make an excellent classroom supplement, but the gritty realism might be a bit much for the casual reader. This book isn't a glossy dystopian tale of good versus evil, begging for a Hollywood adaptation. Rather, this real world story centers on an ordinary teenager struggling to survive horrific circumstances with little under her control. The hardships bring out the best and the worst in people, including Magdalie. She's a believable Haitian girl who pushes boundaries but can't break free. Friendships help bolster her spirit, but a late blooming romance is not more than a footnote. The strong feminist and charitable messages transcend national borders. I'm pleased to see a meaningful book like this published for teenagers.
Reviewer's Disclosure: I have a personal connection to Haiti. My brilliant high school math teacher, Yves Volel, was assassinated when he returned to Haiti to run for president, following the fall of the oppressive Duval regime in the 1980s. Since then I've followed Haiti in the newspaper, especially the horrible earthquake. Hold Tight, Don't Let Go was published on January 6th, 2015, five years after the quake. On my request, I received a free advance digital galley from Amulet Books via netgalley.com. I wish I could share this fine book with Mr. Volel. C'est bien fait.
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