Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Review of Raised by Hand, Lifted by the Tides: by Willett Thomas

'Lil Bit' Lily Dalton's story begins on 'Ditch Thursday' 1953, the day
she almost drowns in the Massaquatta River. For Lily this is the start of 'a strange and fateful summer', the start of 'that period in a young life with pretty pink dresses no longer stem a watershed of tears.' She is living with Miss Beulah, her 'Bubbah' (the woman she considers to be her grandmother) in Arcadia, a poor and racially divided waterway township in Florida. Brief letters written home to Miss Beulah from a period more than a decade earlier, offer glimpses of the cruelty of a time when a young black man could be hanged for presuming to come too close to a white woman. However comfortable Lily and her Bubbah might be, however understanding Miss Dare the school teacher, Arcadia is a community defined by institutional inequality. The novel lives with this fact until almost its end when final revelations pull all aspects of the stories together and remind the reader of the true horror of segregation.
          'Lil Bit' has seen something nasty in the Massaquatta but, because Arcadia is a community where power is despotically exercised by adults over children, as well as by whites over blacks, she is left both physically and metaphorically to drip and shiver in silence. She cannot tell her story at the time that it happens.
          The events of the next two years and all the characters of the township are observed by Lily. This is not limiting but enriching. It adds humour, irony and a child's innocence -- as well as the understated pathos of her situation. Although Lily's understanding is only partial, her knowledge of her community is sufficiently well grounded to convey its habits and prejudices convincingly to the reader. Time passes. Lily's understanding grows. At last she finds a way to make herself heard. She discovers new and surprising truths: she makes good decisions.
          There were times when I found this slowly unfolding story a little unclear and I'm still not entirely sure whether my moments of uncertainly sprang from my complete lack of knowledge of the way of life being described or the fact that I was reading with time lags and snatches. I did wonder whether in fact just a few more signposts would have helped with the clarity of the construction. I don't find flicking backwards and forwards on a Kindle as easy as it is in print format.
          The writing however was a consistent pleasure. Willett Thomas has an absolutely distinctive voice, warm and idiomatic and as the story gathered pace towards the end – and as Lily gained sufficient maturity to make some hard choices in her own right – I felt that Thomas's technique of gradual unfolding had been entirely justified. As another reviewer commented 'there's a lot going on in this book'. I wouldn't necessarily endorse the product description that the reader was being taken on a 'tumultuous ride ride filled with adventure and mystery' but yes, the story certainly did offer its own convincing answer to 'the age old question: What does it take to be a family?'

          I wish I had known a little more about Willett Thomas before I began to read. She is clearly the least egocentric of authors but some context might have helped. I discover now that she is a young, award-winning African-American writer working in Baltimore where she is the president of Write of Passage Inc. This is a training, and publishing organization formed in 2010 to assist unsung and under-served artists and writers hone their craft and to achieve economic success. 10% of all the 2013 Kindle book sales for Raised by Hand will be donated to the 2014 free workshops for Baltimore City Youth. Currently Willett Thomas is writing a novel in instalments for the Baltimore Post Examiner.

          An author to watch and admire, I suggest. 

reviewed by Julia Jones

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