I began reading Hold Tight, Don’t Let Go with my adoptive mother and adult adoptee eyes. As I read, I thought often of my pre-teen daughter who is adopted from Haiti. Although the author, Laura Wagner, does not write into the adoption conversation per se, she offers a story of Haiti and its people developed with respect and beauty.
Many people outside Haiti can only see the country through the perspective of “other”, but Wagner does the excellent work of telling the country’s story of difficulties, danger, and poverty alongside stories of humanity, hope, and strength.
Flashback chapters extend moments of reflection into important dramatic sections of the novel. Wagner also seamlessly weaves Creole into the text while keeping the reader tied to the meaning of the words. She composes a beautiful relief in the end for the reader who “went through” Magdalie’s trauma earlier in the book. Finally, she writes a chapter of hope for the future written “as if” things could and did improve someday.
I attribute Wagner’s ability to write sensitively and intimately about life in Haiti to the fact that she lived in Haiti for several years. I also find it interesting that early in the novel, Wagner shows through strong dialogue and narrative reflections that Haitians only see America through the eyes of “other” as well— “a place where everyone has money, everyone has a car and a lawn and a flush toilet, where the streets are straight and flat and clean.” From the beginning of the story, Wagner complicates this dreamy version of America as “better” through the protagonist (Magdalie)’s realization that she doesn’t “feel jealous at all.” That theme eventually returns at the end, after much time has passed, as Magdalie embraces the good and the beautiful in her own country.
While the story does not speak to adoption, the protagonist lives as an orphan; her mother passed away early in Magdalie’s life, and her aunt (Manman) raises her for a time but loses her life in the earthquake. Magdalie never becomes an adoptee, but she does experience loss—loss of two mothers, and separation from her “sister” Nadine (Manman’s daughter) who leaves for America.
Magdalie experiences poverty, hunger, devastation of her familiar surroundings, tent living, a sense of rejection, a fear of love, and she searches her heart to establish where she belongs, where she will call “home” and who she will call “family”—all themes that can resonate closely with the adoption experience. I found myself connecting to Magdalie as an adoptee occasionally and as an adoptive mom of a Haitian girl, I found myself wondering if this novel will cause my daughter to imagine what her life might have been like had she remained in Haiti.
Mostly, I appreciate that Wagner artfully shows the reader the third world life in Haiti while simultaneously representing the country and its people as not so different from Americans. She connects the reader to “real” people through the development of the characters’ emotions, hopes, dreams, and complex experiences—all inherently universal feelings and experiences. Just as talking negatively about an adoptee’s birth parents can hurt the heart of the adoptee, talking disparagingly about the adoptee’s homeland can do damage also. I feel confident that I can give this book to my daughter to read as it treats the people and the country of Haiti in a truthful and complicated way.
Some parts of the story could upset a young adult reader—conversation regarding male and female genitalia, scenes featuring sex, narrative reflections on sex for money, a sexual assault that Magdalie experiences, Magdalie’s mental breakdown, loss of her will to live, and some Vodun (VooDoo) encounters which might prove mysterious and confusing to a young person.
Upon reading some of these scenes, I decided early on that I would not want my daughter to read this book. However, upon finishing the entire novel, and reading the author notes, I realized those scenes and moments drift into the background by the end. The story of a young girl coming of age and rediscovering her love for her land and herself prevails.
Reviewer: Jamie Nagy
Recommendation: I highly recommend this book for all readers noting that non-Haitians, especially those from Industrialized countries will gain insight into the humanity of Haitians and young adult adoptees from Haiti will find many positive connections to the story and country as they read.