You often hear the phrase “plucky protagonist,” but Corinne La Mer, the 11-year-old main character of Tracey Baptiste’s newest novel for children, The Jumbies, has pluck quite unlike any you’ve seen, given the obstacles she faces.
Jumbies are the spirits of Caribbean folklore: Douens are the spirits of babies that have died before being christened or baptized. A churile is the spirit of a woman who has died in childbirth, though the baby lives. A La Diabless is a beautiful woman who lures men from the main road. (Look closely. She has one human foot and one cow’s hoof.) The soucouyant is an old woman who can remove her wrinkled skin, become a fireball, find her victims, and then suck blood from their arms or legs.
And these are only just a few of the many jumbies that haunt the forests of the island where Corinne lives. Worst of all, her own father has fallen under the spell of a jumbie named Severine, whose goal it is to take over the entire island. Only Corinne and her friends can save everyone, and as they work to do just that, Corinne learns a great deal about her own family that surprises her.
I talked with Baptiste via email to ask her all about this adventure story.
Jules: Hi, Tracey! Thanks for chatting with me about The Jumbies, which as you know, I finished reading to my daughters just last night. To say they really enjoyed it would be an understatement. They were really taken by these creepy, spectacular forest creatures, as was I, and they really rooted for Corinne. In fact, when I got home last night, my 9-year-old said she quickly checked to make sure I didn't have a cow's hoof, à la the La Diabless. No kidding.
You grew up in Trinidad, yes? Can you talk about deciding to take those jumbie stories you heard as a kid and putting them into a novel?
Tracey: Okay, first, I have to say hello to your kids. Hi, guys! Seriously, check everybody's feet, okay? You can never be too safe.
The stories about jumbies were part of regular conversations when I was growing up. People talked about La Diablesse and douen and all the others, as if they're walking down the road or lived at your neighbor's house. They were very much alive to me, even though I knew they were probably just stories. And I also read and listened to fairy tales, which were just as scary, but they were also in books that were so beautifully illustrated, and I felt like all the kids who grew up hearing jumbie stories got cheated. Where were our fairy-tale books? Where were our beautiful illustrations? I figured I'd have to make those books myself.
Jules: Well, I'm glad you did, because this was folklore that was all-new to me. And I think it will be new to many American readers.
When did you start writing it? And can you talk about coming to the realization that Severine, the only made-up jumbie (yes?), was going to be such a central part of the plot?
Tracey: I actually started it right after my first novel was bought, so more than 10 years ago. But I didn't work on it all the time. I really couldn't get the story right, and I re-started it many times with many different voices, different characters, and different opening scenes before I landed on the idea that Corinne was somehow trying to rescue something important to her—and that the book should also end the same way. Corinne also went through many different names, as did Severine.
The idea for the book was inspired by a Haitian folktale called The Magic Orange Tree, which is a Cinderella-type story with a wicked stepmother and a young girl who needs to rise above this wickedness. The wicked woman became Severine in my book, and the idea to make her into a jumbie (and yes, she's a totally made up jumbie) came late in the process. I needed her to be the "face" of all the jumbies, just as Corinne is the "face" of all the people on the island. It immediately pits them against each other.
Jules: Speaking of oranges, I found myself wondering about the symbolism of the fruit. Do you know its symbolism in Caribbean folklore? This all coincides with a CD I am wearing out now by one of my favorite musicians, where she sings a song about a horse looking for a warrior. At the end of the song, the horse meets a priestess who "pulls an orange from the ground." So for weeks now I've been wondering what oranges symbolize, and then I read your novel, where the protagonist grows oranges for market—and oranges are a central part of the story. I tried to look it up, and I see that it can symbolize anything from love and marriage to life and new beginnings. What's the scoop?
Tracey: When a baby is born in the countryside in Haiti, their umbilical cord is planted with a fruit seed. The tree that grows belongs to the child. It is a way for young children to become economically independent. So for Corinne, this independence begins at the start of the story when her tree is finally bearing fruit she can take to market, but it's also rooted in the magic her mother has left behind and in her own family history, which she finds out later. I suppose for the purposes of this story, the oranges represent both independence and Corinne's literal family tree.
Jules: I love the level of spookiness in this book. Those douens—particularly the soucouyant—can be scary, but it's not like it's traumatizing for children either. I wonder: Did you have to scale back the horror, by chance, or did you find a quick balance with that when you started writing?
Tracey: Jumbie stories are told to children, so they're spooky but not too scary, and a lot of the stories are tongue-in-cheek—with the kids in on the joke that there really are no such things. But I still have friends who get nervous when they hear their name called at night. And by friends, I mean me.
I was encouraged to amp up the spooky factor in rewrites. Only one scene required scaling back. It was when an angry Severine kills an animal. I was asked to change it to her eating the animal instead. I liked the change better.
Jules: That's interesting. Normally, you hear authors talk about how publishers want them to scale down on the scary moments. I have even more respect for Algonquin now.
Tracey: Elise Howard and Emily Parliman (who did a good chunk of the editing) were really great at letting me tell this story the way I wanted to. I am very grateful for that.
Jules: What's next for you?
Tracey: What I'm working on now isn't under contract, but it's still in that gooey, I'm-not-sure-what-it-will-be phase, so it's hard to talk about. But I can say that it's my attempt to wrangle with the opposing ideas of how far we can go with technology and what lengths we need to go to preserve nature. I've wanted to write science fiction for a while. We'll see how it goes. Stay tuned!
Jules: Best of luck! It sounds exciting. Gooey seems just the right word for the stage you're talking about too.
Thank you for talking with me about this novel! I'm pushing it on all the children I know. And it was one of the most memorable read-alouds I've had in a long while.
Tracey: Thank you so much, Julie!
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.