Hold Tight, Don’t Let Go by Laura Rose Wagner
Magdalie lives in Haiti with her cousin Nadine and Nadine’s mother, but Magdalie considers them to be her sister and mother. Her aunt works for a wealthy lady, cooking and cleaning, and the three of them live in the lower rooms of the house. When the earthquake hits Haiti in 2010, the girls survive but Nadine’s mother is killed. The two girls have nowhere to go but they are rescued by Magdalie’s uncle and move into the refugee camp. Soon after they move, Nadine’s father gets her a visa and she moves to Miami to live in the United States. Nadine promises to send for Magdalie as soon as she can. Magdalie is left all alone, unable to afford to attend school any longer and mourning the loss of her sister and mother. Magdalie holds tightly to the hope of heading to the United States, but eventually has to admit that she is staying in Haiti and figure out how to not only survive but thrive there.
Wagner writes with a passion that shines on the page. She shows the beauty of Haiti, creating a tapestry of food, sounds and voices that reveals what is often buried beneath the poverty. She does not shy away from the ugliness of poverty, from the waste, the violence and the impossible choices facing a girl like Magdalie. Sex simmers constantly around her, offers are made to young girls, and in one instance Magdalie must make the choice of whether she is willing to be taken care of in exchange for sexual favors.
Through it all, even when she is deep in despair, Magdalie is clearly a smart girl who loves to learn and wants to be something more than where she finds herself. Magdalie is incredibly strong too, facing on a daily basis things that American readers will never have experienced. And that too is part of Wagner’s amazing depiction of Haiti. She makes it clear that it is because of the society of Haiti that there is immense poverty but also that people can survive that poverty. When Magdalie visits a rural part of the country, readers revel right alongside her in the natural beauty. When she longs to return to the camps and the filth, readers too will begin to understand what she sees there and the potential it offers her if she can just find a way.
This is a complex book that does not try to answer society’s issues in a pat or simple way. Rather it stands as witness to the brutality, beauty and incredible strength of Haiti and its people. Appropriate for ages 13-17.
Reviewed from ARC received from Amulet Books.