Thursday, September 24, 2009

Review: Bones Become Flowers, by Jess Mowry

Bones Become Flowers

by Jess Mowry

Windstorm Creative (2001)

Paperback, 392 pages


ISBN 1883573912

Author of Way Past Cool, Phat Acceptance, Voodu Dawgz, When All Goes Bright, and Skeleton Key as well as other novels for and about black kids and teens, such as Six Out Seven, Babylon Boyz, Rats In The Trees, Ghost Train, Tyger Tales, and Children Of The Night. His novel Way Past Cool also available in film version.

After over thirty years of working with kids and raising four of my own, along with a few strays -- none of whom are in prison or collecting Welfare -- not to mention almost twenty years of writing books and stories for and about kids, I've found that it's a lot easier for people to be "pro-child" about some kids than it is for them to care about and champion "other" kids. Perhaps, like the animals in George Orwell's Animal Farm, some kids are more equal than others?

Jess Mowry

The quote above is from Jess’s LibraryThing profile. I might never have heard of him, or of Bones Become Flowers, if he hadn’t set up that account.

I’ve written of my fondness for LibraryThing. An important tool available there is the tag. Tag a book “social justice”, and when anyone in the vast LibraryThing system looks for books on that topic, the book you tagged will be among them.

I was glancing over my Tag Zeitgeist one day and noticed that my most common tag was Haiti. Clicking on it to see if there were any “Haiti” books I might want to read, I found Bones Become Flowers.

When I first received Bones Become Flowers, I entered the book in my catalogue and tagged it Haiti, Vodou, Voodoo. Now I’ve finished it I’ve expanded the list: Haiti, Vodou, Voodoo, religion, culture, social justice, social structure, history, children, boys, poverty, African-American.

Almost all my stories and books are for and about black kids, who are not always cute and cuddly. My characters often spit, sweat and swear, as well as occasionally smoke or drink. Just like their real-world counterparts some are "overweight" and have no desire to get skinny, or they may look "too black," or are otherwise unacceptable by superficial American values... including some AFRICAN-American values. Like on-the-real kids, they often live in dirty, violent environments and are forced into sometimes unpleasant lifestyles.

“I have devoted my career, such as it is, to writing positive but realistic books and stories, not only for and about black kids, but also for "white" kids so they will understand that the negative stereotypes aren't true... that most black kids have other interests besides guns, gangs, drugs, violence, becoming rap stars, or playing basketball.”

Bones Become Flowers certainly falls into this category. No simple romp, it depicts dense and vivid cultures, both African-American and Haitian, reflects on mores and prejudice, plays on literary passages, and examines the politics of gender and sex. It is multi-layered, exciting, brutal, and kind.

Mowry knows well Haiti’s painful and provocative truths. He delivers a ground-level view of history in meaty, candid prose. Yet this history is not over-simplified; many sides of issues are represented, creating an ethical tension that only increases the truthfulness of the book.

Tracy Carter, a black American woman with some cash behind her and a lot of compassion for kids, travels to Haiti with the intention of donating a sum of money to an orphanage in the mountains near Jérèmie. She is a tough, impatient, self-aware woman who is critically aware of oppression, particularly the oppression of children. Yet her character is leavened with wry humour and gentle affection. Her resolute insistence on following the truth, however elusive or uncomfortable, makes her an uncompromising and merciful protagonist.

From start to finish her journey is anything but clear-cut. She encounters a horrifying ritual on a beach en route to Jérèmie, uncovers a painful mystery connected to the orphanage, and sets out to find a talented ex-resident of that institution, to encourage his art and bring him, perhaps, to America, where he could truly flower.

The story is carried by well drawn characters whose motivations are refreshingly free from stereotype. The children are scarred and insolent, reeking and scheming, playful and beautiful, greedy and tender. Tracy is determined, impulsive, and passionately caring. Her heart goes out to children many would deplore and fear; she sees beauty in ugliness, and cherishes all. If your aim is to aid humanity, her actions seem to say, you can’t stop with the people who please you. The shy, clean, obedient, and well-spoken. Mowry draws our attention to the children society turns away from, and puts our noses in their stink, holding us there long enough, perhaps, for us to stop reacting against what we dislike and fear and see who is really there. He offers us a chance to be more human than we were before.

Some of Tracy’s reactions seem strange to me, not because they are strange, but because they’re not my own. But in the main I’m able to follow where her thoughts lead, and even when I am disagreeing with a particular aim (such as bringing the young artist to America) or action, I am wholeheartedly in support of her underlying intentions and am rooting for her to see clearly and decide well.

There is much detail in this book about Haiti, about Tracy, and about the characters she comes to know – Father Avery, Remy the artist, his brain-damaged friends, Jingo and Jango, and the people of Cayes Squellette. There is never a risk of forgetting where you are. Each place becomes real, its textures and smells and nuances defined and heady. Not every detailed jived with my own experience of Haiti, but enough did that I could say, yes, I am there.

“The stream grew swifter and deeper as they descended through the twisting ravine. The water now looked like frothing chocolate. Other small streams were joining it, fed by the rain on the mountains above and leaping down rocks and through branches and vines. A muddy cascade poured over the Jeep from an outcropping, flooding the windshield with yellowish foam and roaring on the roof as they passed underneath. The rushing brook rattled like hail on the hood whenever a patch of gray sky showed through the leaves.” pg.162

Much of the book is inner dialogue. Tracy’s reflections on her own young life and the realities faced by black American youths are every bit as striking as her thoughts about Haiti’s children. She ponders issues at length, many and important issues, and her thoughts are irreverent, frank, and informed with a lack of prettiness and pretension that could in other writers’ hands devolve into stereotype and easy answers.

Mowry doesn’t allow himself or his protagonist easy answers. In a book so concerned with oppression, with a protagonist so aware of it, there is the danger that she will be portrayed as flawless, always noble, always right, a hero against the forces of evil. But Tracy is not free from oppressor patterns herself; she is not always able to see clearly between her First World certainties and Third World truths. Nor, as readers, are we certain what is right and what is wrong, anymore than she is. Is the priest, who we meet in the early part of the book, correct in his beliefs about what the children need and what they have to sacrifice? Is Tracy correct in her disagreement with him? Is her acquisition of a carving that serves a religious function in its community only selfish arrogance, or is it a thoughtful and caring act? Are the people of Cayes Squellette unnecessarily cruel or uncannily wise? One of the great values of Bones Become Flowers is the opportunities it offers to question our own assumptions and reactions, and to open ourselves to other possibilities.

At times I wished there was a little less detail or reflection, but it never became a problem. If I had my editor’s knife, I would have cut a bit here and there, would have suggested that a word or two (seminal being the major one) were used over-much and might be alternated with other words. But these are thin complaints for a book that has fearless vision and a relentless valuing of human beings, whatever their apparent value or role in society, and however they may screw up or simply not appeal.

Bones Become Flowers took me places I would never have guessed it would. Some of those places are not for the squeamish. The positive light that Vodou is cast in will alienate some readers, but for me it was a relief. After the plethora of fear-soaked depictions of zombies and houngans, it’s refreshing to be given a different angle on this religion.

The bit that made me squirm was the attention paid to the corpulence and sexuality of a number of the adolescent boys. Why did it make me squirm?

Partly because I hadn’t finished the book and was not trusting the writer’s ultimate understanding of those themes. Early descriptions of the fat children were unflattering, and fat oppression is an issue I feel strongly about. With my editor’s knife I would have suggested a word change or two. But would that have been necessary? Was I just reacting? I’m not sure. Because in fact the fatness of the children was never seen by the characters as a bad thing. In fact, it was seen as highly positive. I rubbed my mental eyes at not one, but several fat children in the book because I never once saw a fat child in Haiti, except one youngster visiting from Miami.

I was missing the point.

The young god Esu appears in conjunction with the Undertaker in Bones Become Flowers. The gaunt, tall Undertaker receives the dead, and the impish, hedonistic Esu inspires life. His huge tummy is a symbol of his good fortune and the love and care which the people bestow on him. The fat children in the book are linked to him.

The sexuality. It makes complete sense in terms of the story. It just comes up so darned often! These youngsters are randy as heck. And this is a problem why?

I don’t think it actually is. There’s nothing pornographic about the book. My discomfort arises when adults speak of children’s sexuality in any but the most scientific way. I fear they’ll fall into, or will be accused of, using it to pleasure themselves, that rather than a dispassionate depiction of the kids themselves, it could veer into pedophilia. I get nervous in the same way that elementary school teachers get nervous when unknown adults wander into a school. In a world where we’ve seen so much sexual abuse of children, we’ve become flighty at the mere thought of children’s own sexuality, let alone adults referring to it in a book. Nevertheless, however much I cringe when Mowry refers to kids having sex, I never experience it as titillation. Whether it always works completely with the plot – I am thinking of one scene of sex between two boys out on the street, something I can’t even imagine in the Haiti I know – is another matter. In the main, I think it does, and indeed adds something important to our understanding of the characters.

Bones Become Flowers is a fascinating, appealing, and encouraging story. Kudos to Mowry for gathering so many disparate strands of life in difficult lands, and for lifting the whole from sociology to self-awareness and art.

I’m grateful to have met Tracy, and travelled with her to a Haiti I can never encounter, myself. Mowry’s dream is a demonstration of his great thoughtfulness. To have followed Tracy from Jérèmie to Father Avery’s orphanage, to the rusty old Enfant Vagabond, to the island community of Cayes Squellette and their gods, was a pleasure and a gift.

“…a tiny, gentle, and isolated culture that loved its children as it loved itself…” pg. 366

Well done, Jess Mowry. And thanks.

Casey Wolf

Vancouver BC

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