An evocative, lyrical debut novel that chronicles one woman’s journey from Barbados to America at the dawn of the 20th century.
In 1909, Dellie Standard is at a crossroads. Her mother recently died, and she’s torn between a promise she made to her mother to leave their native Barbados and her loyalty to her younger siblings. At the same time, Pendril, her handsome boyfriend, is planning to go to sea. After Dellie has a horrifying encounter with the master of the sugar estate where the Standards are tenants, she realizes she has to leave “the jewel in His Majesty’s Caribbean crown.” She packs her sewing basket and follows her sister, Lillian, to Brooklyn, N.Y., where she hopes to find work as a seamstress. Once she arrives, however, her road is hardly easy; although Lillian, Lillian’s husband and their old friend Winnie welcome her, Dellie has difficulty finding work, and Lillian’s landlady is hostile to newcomers. Eventually, Dellie finds comfort with other expatriate “Bajans” at the Grand and Majestic Fish Lodge of Barbados, an association aimed at advancing the “aims of education and land ownership.” She also befriends Owen Gibson, a Pullman porter who becomes her ambassador to “the world of the American Negro.” However, Dellie never forgets Pendril, even though she never receives a single letter from him, and she fears that he’s forgotten about her. Carey is a scrupulous researcher and weaves historical events such as the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire into her narrative without ever interrupting the plot. If this poignant novel has a flaw, it’s that Carey packs so many events into its pages that it feels rushed at times. By cutting some scenes that aren’t essential to the narrative, such as the haughty landlady’s attempt to force Dellie to pay for uneaten meals, Carey might have had more room to flesh out other sections. For example, while Lillian and Dellie are at New York Harbor waiting for their sister Maude to arrive, Carey mentions the sun and the harbor wind but doesn’t spend much time describing “the long awaited reunions at the Immigration Station.” If the author used her substantial descriptive talents to add depth to moments such as these, readers might have felt even more connected to Dellie’s world.
An often compelling historical novel with a vivid, complex heroine.