Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Hold Tight, Don't Let Go by Laura Rose Wagner

Popham Beach in Phippsburg, Maine on Christmas: do you see the question mark?

Hold Tight, Don't Let Go is a moving story about the Haitian Earthquake of 2010 and an orphan's struggle to survive. This just released novel reads like a memoir. The American author, 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 I wish I could share this fine book with Mr. Volel. C'est bien fait.

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@Barrie Summy


Ellen Booraem said...

This sounds utterly absorbing, Sarah. The author seems to have made the right choice telling the earthquake story as fiction. I'll watch for it.

Linda McLaughlin said...

Sounds like a terrific book, Sarah. Thanks for the great review.

Unknown said...

Sounds as if triumph (of the literary sort) has come from tragedy. Excellent review. I wish your math teacher could have shared this find with you.


Jenn Jilks said...

We can learn much from these kind of novels. I'm so sorry for your loss, however.
I read a memoir about the Haiti quake. It was illuminating. I wake, grateful each day.

Rose said...

This sounds like a wonderful book! Even though, it's YA fiction, I'm tempted to read it myself. How awful about your math teacher--I can see why you have such a personal connection to Haiti.

Cynthia Pittmann said...

Sarah, thank you for such a fine review. I read your note about losing your high school math teacher with compassion.

I have wanted to read something about the lives of people in Haiti and the earthquake. I followed the news and participated in drives to send shoes and necessities right after the quake.

We are concerned about earthquakes in Puerto Rico. As you would expect, island locations are extremely vulnerable to nature.

Thanks again for this YA book review and recommendation.

Amanda Summer said...

The author could have written a memoir about her experience of the earthquake but chose instead to tell the story through the character of a young Haitian girl - for some reason I sense her anthropologist's sensibilities have something to do with that, which is fascinating in and of itself. Superb review of what seems a beautiful book. I am so sorry to read of your math teacher's fate and completely understand your interest in Haiti. Have you ever visited?

Barrie said...

Wow. This book sounds incredible. It would be interesting to hear the author's rationale for choosing to write this story as a YA fiction. It certainly sounds as though it was a brilliant choice. I love hearing how authors make those kinds of decisions. Thanks you for reviewing. And thank you for sharing about your personal connection with Haiti via your math teacher.

A Cuban In London said...

Sorry to hear about your teacher being murdered. We also have a deep connection with Haiti in Cuba as many Haitians fled to Cuba after their revolution. This sounds like a good novel. Thanks for your review, it was touching.

Greetings from London.

Sarah Laurence said...

Jen, yes, I remember you reviewing that memoir for the book club. Thanks for the link.

Rose, yes, many of us adults read YA too, and this one would cross over well to an adult audience.

Cynthia, I understand and appreciate your concern. My daughter’s school is still raising money for Haiti. It is a slow recovery. I hope books like this will remind people to help.

Amanda, the closest I’ve been to Haiti was Jamaica. I’d love to visit, especially in January!

Barrie, thanks for hosting! Yes, I would be curious to hear the real story behind her narrative choice. There is hardly anything about this newly released book online.

A Cuban in London, I hadn’t realized that Haitians fled to Cuba. My knowledge of Caribbean history is limited. Thanks for sharing.

Sarah Laurence said...

Ellen, Linda and Alyssa, thanks! I enjoyed your reviews too.

Liviania said...

This sounds like a great book. I love the cover - it really pops, which is sometimes lacking on more serious books like this.

That link about your former teacher is fascinating.