Written by: Laura Rose Wagner
Published by: Amulet Books
Publication Date: 1/6/15
Review Copy: ARC from ALA
In Short: 15-year-old Magdalie’s life changes when the Haiti earthquake of 2010 kills one close family member and sends another to the United States.
Opinion: An interesting, heartfelt novel about the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake.
Brief Summary: Magdalie was fifteen years old and lived with her mother and sister in the basement of the house in Port-au-Prince in which her mother worked. Magdalie and her sister – actually cousins, as Magdalie’s “mother” was actually her aunt (her own killed when she was three) – were very close. They went to school, had fun, and Magdalie wanted to be a doctor. The earthquake in Haiti in 2010 changed all that; her mother was killed, and Magdalie and her sister Nadine went to live in a tent camp with an uncle they would never have lived with otherwise. The girls can no longer go to school because they do not have the money to pay, and Nadine dreams of going to Florida to live with her father. Nadine makes a promise to Magdalie: once Nadine gets to the United States, she will send for Magdalie. Eventually, Nadine gets her papers to go to Florida, and Magdalie is left alone with her uncle, waiting for Nadine to call and tell her good news. It doesn’t happen, and Magdalie, no longer in school, without much money, with an uncle who doesn’t understand her, sinks further into darkness. The story follows Magdalie through the year and a half after the earthquake, as she first falls apart, must make choices she never thought she would have to make, and finally starts to see a way to build a life for herself.
Elaborated Thoughts: Interestingly, this is actually the third novel set in Haiti that I’ve read in the past year. I reviewed Nick Lake’s In Darkness, which was also a YA novel that was set largely in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. It featured an intertwining story about Haiti’s past, and like this novel, fluctuated between extreme darkness and hope. The other book I read was Roxane Gay’s extraordinary and brutal adult novel An Untamed State, most of which is set before the earthquake. Hold Tight, Don’t Let Go was an excellent third novel to read, as it was told from a different perspective, that of a young Haitian woman, but, like the other two, does not flinch when it comes to depicting the harsh realities of life.
It is easy to understand Magdalie, who was a normal teen before the earthquake even if there were struggles. It is easy to understand her desire to return to her life as she knew it or to even a better life, and the hopelessness and lack of resources that allow her to wait for something that seems unlikely to happen. It is also easy to see the beauty of her relationships: with Nadine, with her Manman, with the members of her family she eventually meets outside of the city of Port-au-Prince. The novel feels authentic - the author was living in Haiti at the time of the earthquake, and uses Creole and French words throughout (unfortunately, the glossary was not yet in the edition I read). Like In Darkness, this novel was critical of many of the outside interventions in Haiti – even discussing the cholera scandal - but also, like An Untamed State, depicts conditions in some areas of Haiti that are unacceptable (or were at the time). After reading these novels, I find myself wondering how I – or we – can help in situations like these without doing more damage. Reading these novels also makes me think more deeply and look more critically about the news I hear about Haiti, and really think about just whose perspective it is I am hearing. That, to me, is one of the values of reading literature from and about other cultures – in addition to being introduced to the beauty of those cultures, it allows you to empathize more deeply than you would with a black-and-white news article. This novel is a fine addition to that literature.