Six days after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti that killed 300,000, a tiny girl was pulled out of the rubble, miraculously still alive. This was Lovely, a two-year-old who was already a survivor in this struggling country that remains the poorest in the Western world.
“She was hard-baked, weary, and incredibly self-possessed,” writes Catherine Porter in A Girl Named Lovely: One Child’s Miraculous Survival and My Journey to the Heart of Haiti. Porter would come to know Lovely and to care for her, her family and her country in ways that were utterly counter to the journalistic objectivity she tried, and failed, to maintain.
Porter was a columnist for the Toronto Star when the paper sent her to Haiti to get some personal “aftershock” stories. On arriving in Port-au-Prince, she heard about Lovely’s rescue and tracked her down at a makeshift medical clinic.
At first Lovely was just a story. But when the child was eventually identified and reunited with her destitute parents, Porter got to know the family, connecting more strongly to Lovely with each visit.
Over the next few years Porter would visit Haiti more than 20 times, paying Lovely’s school fees, supporting the parents’ entrepreneurial ventures and covering the family’s medical bills. Her stories spurred readers’ concerns and donations. One time she took the Star’s publisher and the top editor to Haiti; another time she took her own daughter, a little older than Lovely.
It’s no surprise that Porter, an award-winning journalist, daughter of veteran publisher Anna Porter and goddaughter of author Sylvia Fraser, knows how to tell a story. (She acknowledged “mistakes” in accuracy and fairness in a 2015 Star column but soon redeemed herself by becoming Canada bureau chief for the New York Times). But A Girl Named Lovely is more than a good story. It’s also a fascinating exploration of the complexities of giving.
Passive reporting on Haiti’s misery made Porter feel like an accomplice to a crime. So if you’re a rich white person (as a teen, she actually had a debutante’s ball), how much should you give? Porter worries about being considered a walking ATM. If she’s paying for school fees, can she choose the school? Brigades of eager voluntourists were flocking to Haiti post-earthquake. Is that what Haitians wanted? Porter realizes she’s part of a badly broken aid industry, but it doesn’t stop her visceral need to help.
Amid the messy complications, corruption and devastation, Lovely stands as a small, poignant symbol of hope, and this book as an eloquent testament to humanity’s imperfect optimism. Highly readable and heart-wrenchingly affecting.