Hold Tight, Don’t Let Go: A Novel of Haiti by Laura Rose Wagner.
Amulet Books Imprint, Abrams, New York, 2015.
YA realistic fiction novel, 263 pages including extras.
Lexile: not yet leveled.
AR Level: 5.0 (worth 8.0 points) .
15-year-old Magdalie’s been raised by her aunt in Port-au-Prince and is like a sister to her cousin Nadine. When a massive earthquake hits the country, they’re devastated, grief-struck, and struggling to survive. But then Nadine is offered an opportunity, and Magdalie cannot join her. Will their sisterhood survive? Will they?
If you’re reading this review far enough into the future then this book will no longer be realistic fiction. Just as novels about 9/11 are now historical fiction, this book about the January 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti, a recent historical event, will one day be historical fiction!
The book opens with a scene of the actual earthquake, so it certainly starts off gripping. After reading the blurb, I thought this book would be told in two voices, but it focuses solely on Magdalie, the sister left behind in Haiti. This is an interesting twist on the usual immigration narrative. Typically we follow the immigrant and don’t get as much information on those who are left behind. In this book, the immigrant sister slowly and painfully fades away, while the focus is on the dire circumstances and overpowering need for survival in the country of origin.
This is not an #ownvoice book. The author lived in Haiti for three years, but is not Haitian. I’m not sure of her ethnicity but would guess she’s white. Since she lived in Haiti at the time of the earthquake, she is able to look at events with a critical eye. In particular, her experiences of the actual earthquake were a catalyst for the book and the scenes about the earthquake that open the book. She talks a little about the book on the Multicultural Children’s Book Day website.
N found this on display while I was picking up another book. The blurb and flipping through the book didn’t indicate any super mature content. Since it was an adult book, I told her we could get it, but I’d have to read it first. Scroll to the end for my final verdict.
Spoilers Eventually there is a romance component to this novel. I understand why it was introduced (to give conflicting loyalties), and it wasn’t insta-love or badly done. In fact, there is a part on page 221 where the boy tells her he loves her, and she thinks about it but decides not to say anything back because “Maybe, someday, I might be able to love him back. But right now, I can’t see him the same way he sees me, and I look into his kind and trusting face, and I wish I could accept simple love.”
Still somewhat Spoilery I appreciated that Magdalie was still processing her trauma and mature enough to recognize that she couldn’t commit. However, the novel was stronger when it was exploring Magdalie’s non-romantic relationships, whether it was the family dynamics of her unusual grouping or her tentative friendships. End of spoiler
An interesting aspect is that Magdalie was, for all intents and purposes, the adopted daughter of her aunt. However, because this kinship relationship was never formally authorized or legalized, when her aunt passes away, that bond is not necessarily recognized. That has ramifications both in that she is unable to join Nadine in the US, and she struggles to find her place among her birth family (her parents are dead but other relatives survived) and her aunt’s family (where some members accept her as her aunt’s daughter and others do not). She feels a strong pressure to prove herself and be of value to her fictive kin after the earthquake.
This situation mirrors that of many real-life kinship children, who may enjoy the comfort and security of a family until the death of a parent, where they have no legal standing unless the parents have taken extra steps to permit them. It’s a difficult choice for kinship families to decide if they want to seek legal guardianship, adopt, or pursue an informal relationship.
Big Spoiler Magdalie gets into some difficult and adult situations in her quest to survive and thrive in post-earthquake Haiti. Lacking resources and even friends, she turns to a wealthy but disreputable boy her sister knew. He provides some assistance but eventually makes it clear that his help comes with a price. She considers giving him what he’s asking for, but decides not to, at which point he decides that her consent is optional. Another character does sell her body this way, which has unexpected consequences. End of spoilers
Those two parts are why I personally would not allow an elementary school student to read this book. I read quickly to give N an answer, so there may be other components I missed.
My final determination was not yet. I think it could be read by middle schoolers (depending on the individual student or the school), and high school and up who can handle death, human tragedy on a large scale, starvation, prostitution, rape, attempted rape, random violence, and more. Middle school parents and teachers should read this book and determine for themselves if their students can handle these topics.
I did learn a lot about Haiti, particularly the dichotomy between city and rural life (rural life has food but no medicine or school, no opportunity; city life has medicine and education but money is crucial and starving to death is possible), the corruption and beauty, and post-earthquake experiences. The realistic portrayal of depression and trauma was also appreciated.