CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 21. . . .February 4, 2011.
Toronto, ON: Doubleday Canada, 2011.
297 pp., pbk., $14.95.
Haiti Earthquake, Haiti, 2010-Juvenile fiction.
Grades 6-9 / Ages 11-14.
Review by Joan Marshall.
Still mourning the death of his mother six months ago, 15-year-old Josh accompanies his pastor father and younger sister on a missionary trip to Haiti. Just as their construction of a dormitory at a mountainous orphanage is successfully completed, and his family has gone away to Port-au-Prince for a couple of days, the devastating earthquake of January 2010 hits. Josh and his new friend, 16-year-old orphan Philippe, struggle to transport the diabetic Naomi to the Canadian embassy in Port-au-Prince where they know she will be given the insulin she needs At the embassy, Josh is also reunited with his father and sister, and commits to staying in Haiti to help in the re-construction.
“Michelle was in the dining hall when it collapsed. She was hit by a beam. She died.”
One of the girls started crying. Naomi reached over and put her arm around her, comforting her.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I wish there was something we could have done, but there was nothing.”
“It was God’s will,” Iris said.
I looked over at her in disbelief. Did she really believe that God wanted Michelle dead?
“We need to pray for Michelle’s soul,” she said, sobbing.
I couldn’t believe what she was doing. If she really thought that God had killed Michelle - that it was his will- did it make any sense to pray to the very being that had caused her to die?
“Yes, we need to thank God that the rest of us are safe,” she continued. “And give thanks for the life of my dear friend, Michelle, who is now in a better place.”
Did she consider trapped under a beam in the collapsed dining hall a “better place?”
“Our Father chose to spare us. He used his power to safeguard our lives,” she said.
Maybe he should have used his power to stop the earthquake from happening. That would have been a lot better. If he’d done that, Michele would still have been here instead of lying underneath a collapsed beam. Besides, if she had gone to a “better place”, maybe we should have been upset that we had to stay here in a worse place.
“Do you want to lead the prayer?” Iris asked me.
I was both shocked and surprised. I shook my head.
“Then I will,” she said. “Could we please bow our heads.”
Everybody bowed their heads. Everybody except for me and Philippe.
“Our Father, who art in Heaven,” she began.
Great, fall back on the Lord’s Prayer. Quietly I walked away. Philippe followed behind me. They could go ahead and pray, for all the good it would do them. We had work to do. God wasn’t going to be dragging the mattresses outside.
Josh is a conflicted soul, the proverbial “preacher’s kid.” Steeped in a life of religious fundamentalism, he bitterly rejects a God who would allow his mother to die. His inner cynicism, however, is overcome by his essential goodness as he throws himself into the dormitory construction. Bravely, he leads Naomi to safety in the face of incredible danger, turning to prayer for strength. Finally Josh decides that, if a person can’t believe that there is a God, he should at least act as if there is one.
The orphan Philippe is the truly god-like character, a gentle yet determined young man to whom the younger orphans look for support. Although he clearly understands the dangers of travelling the earthquake ravaged roads of Haiti, Philippe, nevertheless, forges onward to support Josh.
Josh’s father, the fundamentalist pastor, seems stiff and relentless, resorting to rote sermons that Josh can practically quote word for word. It’s only at the very end of the novel that he admits his doubts to Josh and credits Josh with his persistence in struggling with his faith.
The diabetic Naomi is too goody two shoes and innocent to be believed. However, Pastor Dave, who runs the orphanage, seems down to earth and realistic.
The strong Haitian setting ranges from the barbed wire topped, walled orphanage, to the rural mud hovels of the countryside, to the sinister streets of Port-au-Prince. French is slipped in easily and naturally as Josh listens and attempts to use his school French to communicate.
Unfortunately, the pacing is often slowed, if not brought to a halt completely, as one character or another launches into a lengthy explanation, or even a lecture, about the history of Haiti, or diabetes, or religion.
In our secular society, it will be difficult to interest middle school students in this inner battle about faith. Characters who obsess about the biblical nature of their first names, and who quote scripture to prove points in arguments, will seem so foreign as to be unbelievable in the extreme. However, faith-based schools may find this novel useful as an example of how teens may struggle with their faith and how to express it in the real world.
Joan Marshall is a bookseller in Winnipeg, MB.
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