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26155: Corbett: (Review) Jaira Placide: FRESH GIRL
From Bob Corbett
For a nicely formatted version of this review, see url below.
However, the review itself is below the url in e-mail form.
New York: Wendy Lamb Books, 2002
ISBN # 0-385-32753-6.
Comments by Bob Corbett
I had just finished reading one book and decided to pick a novel from my long
shelf of ?Haiti books to be read.? Since I was rushing out the door in a hurry
to get to my coffee shop, I did a most unusual thing: just grabbed the first
book I touched at random. Normally the choice of my next read is a long and
drawn out affair. Thus I ended up an age and gender inappropriate reader for
Jaira Placide?s FRESH GIRL ? a novel aimed at teeny-bopper girls.
Much to my surprise and delight and contrary to my reaction in the first few
pages, I loved the book and was excited by much of the writing, even
astonished at the depth and boldness of the central theme.
Mardi Desravines is a 14 year old American girl, daughter of Haitian parents.
At age 4 she is taken to Haiti to live with her grandmother since her parents
are both working long hours to establish themselves in Brooklyn, New York. She
lives there for some ten years.
During the 1991 coup which overthrew President Aristide, Mardi?s uncle?s
support of Lavalas brings the family into political disfavor and first Mardi
and her older sister ?escape? back ?home,? a place she doesn?t much remember,
and soon her grandmother follows. Her uncle eventually arrives, having first
spent some months at the Guantanamo Bay holding facility.
The central and most powerful theme of the novel is the hidden secret of
trauma that Mardi bears from her escape from Haiti, one that leaves her
frightened, unsure of herself, withdrawn and angry. Her anger often breaks out
at home winning her the reputation of the title: fresh girl.
It is the slow unraveling of this story of trauma that greatly surprised me
and deeply impressed me. I?ll leave the contents of the story for other
readers to discover, but it is managed with gripping suspense, delicate
sensitivity, boldness and honesty. (All things I wouldn?t have expected in a
novel for young girls.)
A secondary plot ? life as a freshman in the local Brooklyn high school ? was
much more predictable and less satisfying. Mardi is the shy, not so pretty
little girl speaking English poorly, who falls for the most handsome boy, who
messes with her head but remains with the slutty and most beautiful girl in
the neighborhood. An assortment of equally pro-forma classmates follow,
including Ike, a bully and alcohol/dope-using kid who is, of course, in no way
responsible for his actions ? only his status as poor kid in the slums
accounts for his behavior.
The rest of the story was so well done that I finally decided not to really
blame Placide for this line of plot, I strongly suspect it is demanded by the
genre, and required by publisher and the librarians and teachers who would
encourage the reading of such fiction.
Once I could accept the necessity of this sub-plot I was pleased that Placide
handled it deftly with both pathos and humor making the reader do the
appropriate things ? hiss at the villain, scream when the heroine is
threatened, and clap loudly at the happily-ever-after ending as the curtain
falls. Goodness and the American way triumph after all.
However, a third plot -- the family story is much more creative, impressive
and satisfying. Mother and father are rather bland, but at least there are
truly HAITIAN parents, and we read much about family life and traditions in
Haiti and their transfer to Brooklyn. Much more interesting are the flaky,
even crazy Aunt Wizda, and the pure, good, even if oh so politically correct,
political activist Uncle Perrin. Placide has created two wonderful support
characters and displays significant literary skills, even a very promising
The novel is what it is ? a book aimed at young girls. I think the Haiti coup
d?etat theme and interconnected Haitian family focus is strong enough to
interest most readers who have a serious interest in Haiti.
I hope that at some future date Jaira Placide will bite the bullet of higher
literary ambition and write a novel which can display her full literary
ability and her considerable human sensibility without the restrictions of a
genre which limits both form and content.