Merle Hodge, For the Life of Laetitia. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1993. Aerial edition (paperback), 1994. 214 pages.
I had heard of For the Life of Laetitia before reading it. The book had received excellent reviews and many commendations. All of them turned out to be richly deserved—not, alas, always the case, so I'd felt no predisposition to praise. In fact, I was probably more inclined to criticize, having, like Laetitia, a certain bias against authority!
Reading it again for The Caribbean Writer, I liked the book even better the second time around. It's a touching, beautifully written coming-of-age story set in Trinidad. That setting is alive and vivid--foods, vegetation, holidays, language, and so many other telling details that we know, however novelistically shaped, the story is true.
We join Laetitia, or Lacey for short, as she's leaving her home in Sooklal Trace, where she lives with her grandmother and other members of her extended family (Mother is in New York trying to make a living as a janitor in a hospital). She's headed for La Puerta in her father's big car; she's going to live with him, his wife, and a younger brother she doesn't know.
Her father has never paid much attention to her before, though in passing he might have handed her money for a snow cone. (Lacey's grandmother is contemptuous of such largesse. "'Sno-cone?' she said. 'The child could live on sno-cone?"') But now that Lacey has passed her secondary school exams, she has achieved the kind of glory that will reflect on him, or so he assumes. He has invited her to live with him: no long commute, no early morning bus rides and, of course, a new school uniform and books. It's an offer she and her family can't refuse.
Right from the start we know that his values and personality will create problems. Premonitions of disasters ahead, even the possibility of child abuse (for we learn he has a history of violence), add to our fears for Lacey's future especially because we're really rooting for her to succeed: she's the first member of her family to pass the exams and go on to secondary school.
Lacey's situation is difficult, but not nearly as difficult as it is for her Indian friend, Anjanee, who not only has to deal with poverty and a long commute, but with a patriarchally imposed obstacle course. Anjanee struggles valiantly to rise above the limits placed on the lives of the women around her, but the struggle, as it turns out, will be too difficult.
We are introduced to a range of women characters, including feisty, independent Ma Zelline, with "neither chick nor child nor regret to rankle her old age," doing as she likes, even growing vegetables in her front, not back, yard. There's the officious, angry, insensitive teacher who "dress-up like a damn circus-horse" and marks a student paper with the words, "You will never learn." There's Miss Velma, Lacey's "half-dead, frightened," but well-meaning stepmother.
Lacey learns something about families as the story progresses—not the so-called happy family described at school: square jawed father, blonde mother, and two apple-cheeked children, but a supportive extended family like the one in Sooklal Trace, contrasted with the repressive, broken-spirited family, however nuclear, that is her father's, and a family even harder to understand, a family that expects its child to sacrifice her hopes and dreams only because she's a female. This is the family Anjanee escapes. Her suicide is not entirely unexpected, but still shocking. Anjanee's story could easily dominate Lacey's, but here it has to take second place, despite its intrinsic drama or, more properly, melodrama.
Lacey faces—this is a "coming-of-age" novel—some tough choices. The reader, taking Lacey's side at times, at times not, will be pleased at the best of all possible resolutions, considering the circumstances.
Throughout, we are given plenty of room to read between the lines, to read deeper than the lines. The author never over explicates. She allows us to brush against reality rather than banging us over the head with it. Her points are delicately made; often an inflection, a phrase, a brief description is enough to lead us on to a logical conclusion, and beyond that, speculation, empathy, understanding.
The book's truth, humor, and realism were summed
up for me in one of the classroom scenes, when the kids attempt to explain
the difference between being "racial" and "racist" to a teacher. For flavor,
here's a couple of lines:
"Racist, miss?" someone asked. "Miss,'racist' is like over in America, or South Africa, miss. Like them Klu Klee. . .Klu Klu..Klu Klux Klan and thing. We not so, miss."
The class agreed. "Racist" was the word for those wicked white people in South Africa and America. In our country we just had some people who were racial.
Miss held her head and looked frantic: "What you mean 'just'?. . .
As for the localisms of Trinidadian speech, they are perfectly accessible to a non-West Indian audience. "Exotic" terms are defined in context, though at least on one occasion I sensed the answer to an editor's question: "What is that?"
For the Life of Laetitia is marketed as a young adult novel (twelve years old and up). Will young adults pick up a book with a cover that tells so little? In the Aerial paperback edition, the close-up photograph of a pre-teen dressed in white isn't much of a hook. No clue as to place, theme, or multiplicity of characters. . .
A place on school and library reading lists, perhaps along with some of the other outstanding young adults novels set in the region (Taste of Salt, about Haiti, comes to mind), will ensure that Merle Hodge's Lacey finds the wide audience she ought to have. Meanwhile, I'm imagining a more evocative book jacket and casting the movie in my head.
Copyright © Merle Hodge