Jaira Placide.
New York: Wendy Lamb Books, 2002
ISBN # 0-385-32753-6.
213 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
August 2005

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hidden secret of trauma that Mardi bears from her escape from Haiti, one that leaves her frightened, unsure of herself, withdrawn and angry.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 flair.

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.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett