‘Hold Tight, Don’t Let Go’ a novel of growing up in a devastated Haiti

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Kimberly Lopez of the Lawrence Public Library posted this review on the Library’s site.

On Jan. 12, 2010, an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 struck Haiti and devastated large parts of the country, essentially leveling the major city of Port-au-Prince. It is estimated up to 160,000 people lost their lives, though some figures go as high as 316,000.

Some bodies were able to be identified and were buried by families and loved ones of the deceased, but for most, their final resting place would be in a mass grave. Many Haitians in and around Port-au-Prince, whose homes were completely destroyed in the earthquake or during the various aftershocks, were left homeless and as a solution constructed “tent cities” where temporary homes were made from tents, pieces of tarp, pieces of metal, pieces of plastic, etc.

These refugee camps housed as many as 1.2 million Haitians directly after the earthquake, up to 500,000 two years after the earthquake, and as many as 60,000 just a few months ago in 2015. As if the horrors inflicted upon the country by the natural disaster were not enough, cholera broke out north of Port-au-Prince in October 2010, and since then has killed thousands of Haitians.

This is the brutal reality Magdalie is faced with in “Hold Tight, Don’t Let Go” by Laura Rose Wagner. Magdalie is a normal 15-year-old girl before the earthquake — she lives with her sister and her mother, who works as a maid for a wealthy woman in Port-au-Prince. While they are never considered rich by Haitian standards, Magdalie lives happily and healthfully with her small family unit. Her mother is killed during the earthquake, and both her sister and Magdalie are left homeless. Their only family remaining in the area is a decent but not-kind uncle — the girls are left under his care and all three share a tent in one of the camps.

Despite all of this, despite losing their mother and their home and not being able to go to school, Magdalie and her sister Nadine find ways to occupy their time, whether it is through gossiping, painting each other’s nails and practicing cosmetology, or providing the much-needed companionship and love each other desperately craves. Unfortunately, Magdalie and Nadine are eventually separated, and Magdalie must come to terms with the fact that she is now alone.

Magdalie as a character is one of the most impressive young heroines I have ever encountered in young-adult fiction (and even adult fiction, for that matter). Her strength and resilience during times of intense terror and confusion is a beautiful metaphor for the country of Haiti itself and its people, which have faced years and years of political unrest but still manage to hold on to their identity and culture. While the setting of this book is not a happy or stable time for Haitians, I still found myself falling in love with the country and their various traditions and cultural habits.

The author herself is not a Haitian, but she lived in Haiti from 2009 to 2012 and managed to survive the earthquake thanks to ordinary people, so the scenes in the book immediately after the earthquake are particularly poignant as the author herself experienced this. Wagner gives an honest and beautiful portrayal of Haitians and their country — I found myself getting lost in Magdalie’s internal thoughts and dialogue, and never once did I think about how the author herself was only a visitor to that country.

This book is an excellent example of highlighting and celebrating a particular culture, without overstepping the bounds as an observer. There is not a single example of the “white savior complex” in this entire novel — in fact, Wagner critiques Western cultures involvements in Haiti throughout various moments in the book (there is a particular scene with a clueless photographer and an angered Magdalie that I found particularly satisfying).

Wagner’s writing style exhibited through Magdalie’s thoughts and experiences is so gorgeous, I find it difficult to write or talk about it and still do the book justice. In order for me to successfully convey my thoughts and emotions about this book, I would have to quote large sections, and by large sections I mean I would have to read aloud the entirety of “Hold Tight, Don’t Let Go” so everyone could experience this magnificent book, as well.

After finishing it, I wanted to know even more about Haiti and conveniently, the author left a list of further reading in the back of the novel. I am greatly looking forward to reading all of the books the author suggested, and delving even more in to Haitian culture (something of which I highly recommend everyone does).

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