Thursday, August 27, 2015
2016 Contenders: The Jumbies, by Tracey Baptiste
There's a lot in The Jumbies to admire. At its heart, it's a pure folktale story, one based in a deep understanding of several strains of Caribbean lore. (Author Tracey Baptiste is originally from Trinidad, and has stated that the concept for the book was inspired by a traditional Haitian story.) Corinne is a likable protagonist, and her fellow islanders are also interesting and sympathetic -- especially the orphaned brothers, Bouki and Malik. The island setting, with the ominous shadow of the forest always hanging over everything, also comes alive within the pages.
The Jumbies isn't without flaws, however, and I think the primary one is what I usually call "the Paradise Lost problem": an antagonist who is so strongly written, and whose motives can be construed sympathetically enough, that the ostensible point of the book is undercut. The villain of The Jumbies is Severine, the ruler of the other jumbies. She despises the humans, and is willing to fight in any number of ways to control or defeat them, and Corinne is her main target.
Baptiste makes no secret of the fact that we're meant to dislike Severine; her own author's note states, "Severine is everything I expect a jumbie to be -- tricky, mean, and selfish -- with the added bonus of thinking she's better than everyone else." It's true that Severine displays these characteristics, and is a formidable opponent. On the other hand, she's someone who has lost a great deal; her sister is dead, and her island has been invaded by humans, who have no respect for the forest, and who don't even acknowledge the existence of her and her kind. Severine's methods leave something to be desired, but it's easy enough to see her as an anticolonialist leader of the mistreated indigenous inhabitants to make her demonization problematic. (Baptiste tries to deal with some of this in the ending, with a discussion of discovering "a way to live together," but by that point, the accumulated weight of the narrative is too great to be brushed quickly aside). Severine also clearly wants to have a family again, and if those desires have been twisted and warped in her head, they're still hard for me to completely discredit.
I hope many children find and enjoy The Jumbies. It's a lovely blend of the familiar and the new, and I think plenty of readers will like it. I think it's too internally conflicted to entirely succeed, however, and I think that will keep the book from rising to the top of the Newbery heap.
Published in April by Algonquin / Workman