Monday, March 2, 2015

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

Many of the teen books I see feature kids with what are affectionately known as "first world problems" i.e. who to go to the prom with, what clothes to wear etc. This is not to belittle those issues but I am sure even the protagonists of those books would admit how good they have it. Hold Tight Don't Let Go features two girls Magdalie and Nadine who have been  brought up like sisters in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. After a terrible earthquake they are forced to live in a refugee camp where conditions are squalid to say the least.

The girls make do and learn to enjoy their new life in the much changed capital city. They are normal teenagers with normal teenage angst and experiences. The novel has many American pop culture references which make the text accessible to the North American reader (and also show how prevalent American culture is worldwide).

Life changes for both girls when Nadine gets an American visa and moves away to Florida. She promises to do the same for Magdalie and this hope of making the trip to America becomes the only thing that sustains her. I would also add that obtaining an American visa is one of the most important things in the lives of millions of people worldwide and small industries are devoted towards securing that or a green card. The US despite its flaws is still seen as a land of milk and honey and exceptional opportunity.

There are countless novels featuring a female protagonist who, at her wits end decides to use her body as a commodity. I was very glad that she did not choose that route nor that of the easy life offered to her by another character later on in the book. The author Wagner as an educated woman and anthropologist must have been very conscious about her portrayal of the country's citizens.

Nadine does not live a charmed life in Miami however and in her few conversations she has with Magdalie seems conflicted about her new life and seems to be experiencing a small degree of culture shock. Magdalie also experiences a shock of her own when she travels to the remote village her mother is from. Wagner does well to portray a reality on Haiti (and many of the Caribbean nations for that matter), that of the ease of country life but its stifling quality and lack of amenities.

I was pleased to see that in the afterword Wagner gave a brief explanation as to why Haiti is the way it is. It is common to hear that Haiti is the the poorest country in the hemisphere etc but most people don't bother to read up on exactly why that is. This is a good book for a young reader because of the universal themes explored but also because it gives an unflinching portrait of the soaring heights and dreadful depths that is Haiti.

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