Young Adult Book: ‘Hold Tight, Don’t Let Go,’ A Novel of Haiti by Laura Rose Wagner


This review by Ibi Zoboi appeared in The New York Times.

When we are uncertain that the ground beneath our feet will not rumble and shift and swallow us whole, even the very next minute carries with it looming doubt. This is one of the ways Haitians say goodbye: ­Demen si Dye vle — “Tomorrow if God is willing.” Tomorrow is not promised, and when it does come, with all its roils and jolts, kenbe fèm, pa lage, “hold tight, don’t let go.” That is the title of Laura Rose Wagner’s debut novel, in which such Haitian idioms abound. This coming-of-age story conveys the country’s deeply entwined faith and fear of the unknown through the eyes of a teenager named Magdalie Jean-Baptiste.

The novel begins with the tumultuous 7.0-magnitude earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12, 2010. Wagner, a doctoral student in anthropology at the time, survived this tragedy and weaves some of the details into Magdalie’s memories. There is a “deafening growl,” falling slabs of concrete and flying dust, rendered in a dreamlike sequence. Magdalie is shelling peas; her sister, Nadine, is down the road with a friend, awaiting the start of a favorite soap opera; and her mother is ironing in the home they share with her contemptuous employer, Madame Faustin, before their city is swallowed by “a chalky cloud of cement.”

Magdalie’s mother succumbs to ­Madame Faustin’s falling house — a home that she and her two teenage daughters never really claimed for themselves; she was both guest and servant. After moving into a refugee camp with an uncle, Magdalie must once again face loss when the blurred lines of familial relations become as clear as fault lines: Nadine is really her cousin and not her biological sister. So when Nadine’s father sends her a visa and a one-way plane ticket to Miami, it is this quivering aftershock that sends Magdalie into a shroud of anger and doubt.

Magdalie is left to navigate life in the camp alone — the fetid latrines; the ­intruding police; and on one occasion, an invasive foreign photojournalist who sends Magdalie into a rage. As a result, her concerned uncle takes her to a ­manbo, a Voodoo priestess, to cure her anger. While the moments with the manbo are a bit ­obscure, Magdalie experiences a shift in perspective. The boundaries of her shattered world stretch even farther during a trip to a remote mountainside village to bury the remains of her mother. Here is where Magdalie experiences the breadth, depth and beauty of Haitian culture, along with the sweetness of a fledgling romance.

Wagner paints a lush and authentic ­image of Haiti, breathing life into Port-au-Prince’s inhabitants through common expressions like mezanmi (roughly, “Oh, my God!”); mentions of popular cuisine like tonmtonm(mashed breadfruit), and the beloved comedic character Tonton Bicha; and even the small gestures of her characters, such as balancing a cooler atop one’s head while walking through bustling streets. But however evocative, such ­details tend to overwhelm the story, making some scenes read more like a travelogue.In a country brimming with “Demen si Dye vles,” Magdalie is at first hellbent on leaving to reunite with her sister-cousin. She is painfully alone in a city where tens of thousands have also lost loved ones. Even in a camp where dozens are experiencing similar tragedies, Magdalie is reserved when making a new friend. Her own uncle doesn’t seem to understand that she is bitter and grieving like the rest of the country.

Magdalie also makes such sharp observations about her world that, at times, I found myself pulled out of the story. She writes in her journal: “Apparently it’s O.K. to make Manman work her fingers to the bone, but if a child under 18 so much as scrapes a plate, it’s a human rights violation.” This is indeed true, but Magdalie’s life is so intricately woven into the ­mores of her society that this criticism, and ­others like it, feel as though Wagner is straining to reveal Haiti’s many paradoxes.

The novel’s ending, written as Magdalie’s journal entry several years into the future, offers a hopeful but somewhat reductive view of how Haiti’s ills can be solved: reparations from France. Nonetheless, readers of Haitiphile children’s authors like Frances Temple and Nick Lake, author of the Printz Award-winning post-earthquake novel “In Darkness,” will find in “Hold Tight Don’t Let Go” a more bona fide depiction of Haiti’s culture. Wagner has delved deep to shed light on one girl’s journey to find sure footing in an unsteady world.


By Laura Rose Wagner

263 pp. Amulet Books. $17.95. (Young adult; ages 14 and up)

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