Based on James-Rogers’ ancestors’ accounts, this debut YA novel tells the story of a family of free African-Americans during the Civil War era that tries to start anew as colonists in Haiti.
In 1861, the Whitfields—father Henry, mother Sarah, daughter Miri, and her little brother Georgie (nicknamed “Splinter”)—are part of a prosperous, free African-American community in Spencer, New York. But as the war looms, no one there feels safe. Henry wants to enlist with the Union Army, but black men are barred from joining. The government in Washington, D.C., instead urges free African-Americans to go to Haiti to start a colony. Henry and others reluctantly agree. Henry is a barber by trade, but as a backup, he buys some beehives and receives rudimentary instruction on how to care for them. Miri is dead set against the move, but she’s a dutiful daughter in an ultratraditional family. Life in Haiti is hard; Henry can’t find work as a barber in Port-au-Prince, so the family goes to the Artibonite region to become farmers. They struggle valiantly, but their first successes are destroyed by a hurricane, and an outbreak of yellow fever follows. Finally, the American government decrees that black men may enlist after all, so Henry sails north, leaving the family even though Sarah is pregnant and sick with fever. Much anxiety ensues. James-Rogers, while not a great prose stylist, is a competent storyteller, and she ably gets her message across in this debut. Miri, as a character, is shown to be requisitely tough and often caught between a rock and a hard place; she not only takes charge of the family in her father’s absence, but also becomes “queen” of all the hives in the colony, which allows the family to survive. Along the way, the author shows how Miri faces not only her family’s strictures, but also the benign sexism of the era and her own struggles to find herself—specifically, to define herself as a woman. The moral lessons that the novel provides its teenage readership are clear throughout, but they’re subtle enough to never bludgeon readers.
A modest but promising first novel.