I just finished reading Lynn Joseph’s “The Color of My Words,” a slim (138 pages) novel about a girl growing up on the Caribbean Island of the Dominican Republic, during a time when the government is desperate (and corrupt) enough to engage in a scheme to attract more tourists that at the same time is a blatant unethical attempt to oust some of the islanders from their longtime homes. This scheme culminates in the novel’s bloody climax. But, before I get into that . . .
This realistic fiction novel is told from the perspective of Ana Rosa, who is 12. Ana lives with her Mami, a stern yet loving woman, and her Papi, a man whom Ana adores despite his penchant for drinking his life away. The man likes his rum. Also, living at home is Angela, Ana’s beautiful older sister, and Guario, Ana’s hard-working brother, who is basically the Man of the House. Ana worships Guario.
Ana loves to write; that is her gift, and the author shows this be starting each chapter with a poem that the reader assumes was written by Ana. (I saw a similar technique in a book called “Bronx Masquerade,” about inner-city kids who find their voice through poetry.) The problem with Ana’s love of writing is the fact that her family is so poor they can barely afford a proper notebook and, more importantly, the government’s inclination to silence (by any means necessary, as you’ll see in the climax) those who speak out against it. And, with Ana’s village so poor and being constantly inundated with well-off tourists who soak up their island’s beaches and sunshine, Ana observes the inequity all around her – and matters escalate when the government plans to sell much of Ana’s neighborhood to a hotel developer.
Ana does find her voice (and proper paper upon which to express it) to speak out, but with tragic consequences.
There is also the matter of Ana realizing midway through the book something shocking about her past. In a typically nice piece of writing, Lynn Joseph writes:
“Before we reached the house, I heard Papi’s whistling. It was payday for Guario and we had been getting ready for another little fiesta. Papi was fixing up the porch with chairs. When he heard us walk up he turned around but as soon as he saw Mami’s face, he stopped He stood as still as the leaves before a rainstorm.
Then, in a split second, I saw my swift-dancing Papi turn into a clumsy old man. His hand reached blindly behind him for a chair. With a heavy sigh, Papi sat down and looked at us with eyes that were two dark holes. Suddenly I felt very frightened.
‘Que pasa, Mami, Papi?’ I asked softly.
I listened as Mami spoke, very slowly this time and very clearly, telling Papi about the man on the mule. About how this man was my father. And how he had given me money and ridden off.
‘But I already have a father,’ I said when Mami was finished. ‘Right, Papi?’
Papi bent his head and stared into his rum bottle (pages 86-87).”
This passage is indicative of Joseph’s style: language that is rich with craft, mixing figures of speech (similes and metaphors) with examples of juxtaposition (“swift-dancing” into “clumsy old man”) and characterization, and techniques like Artful Fragments. In this way, the book reminded my of Jamaica Kincaid’s (also slim) coming-of-age story of a girl in the Caribbean, “Annie John.”
In all, I liked this book. It was a pleasant reading experience. The plot and the writing were strong. It is not a 10, but it’s not mediocre, either. I’d rate it an eight, and I hope some of you choose to pick it out of our classroom library (it will be offered to my Humanities class as a book-club choice when we study Latin America) and tell me what you think. Maybe “Annie John” is in your future.