Filled with optimism and nuggets of wisdom, Altema’s short novel tells of a poor family’s struggle to survive and overcome prejudice in a harsh modern world.
Raymond lives with his mother on the sunny Caribbean island of Haiti. They are descendants of a commune, or Lakou, proud people who believe that “death was preferable to shame and dishonor.” Raymond feels like an outcast. He hates Christmas because Tonton Noël (Santa Claus) always seems to skip his house, and his worn shoes and ragged clothes mark him at school as someone of low social status. All this changes when his mother, Marie, meets Ti-Joe, a local fisherman who lets the boy earn money by helping him catch fish. With the money, Raymond buys a large toy truck, and for the first time, he has a toy to compete with his friends’ gifts. Suddenly, they want to visit him, and school becomes more bearable. The following chapters weave together the story of how destiny brings together Raymond, Marie, Ti-Joe and Ola, the boy’s uncle, showing how they overcome poverty and illiteracy. Characterizations are vivid and compelling. Marie, a widow, with her “skin dark like ebony” and “ivory white teeth,” is determined to properly bring up her son after her husband’s death, and “like an ant,” Ti-Joe “had disproportionate strength compared to his weight.” Ti-Joe looms large in the book, befriending Raymond, passing on his wisdom to the boy and eventually taking care of his mother. The story relies heavily upon reminiscence, which might make it a difficult read for young readers looking for fast-paced action, and the mixed tenses and idiomatic expression of native speech occasionally spoil the flow. But those who enjoy unassuming philosophical tales may well find inspiration in this slice of Caribbean life.
An absorbing glimpse into another culture, with memorable characters and the quiet message that you don’t have to be rich to live honorably.