Hold Tight Don't Let Go is a story about life in Haiti after the January 12, 2010 earthquake that devastated the impoverished island.
Fifteen year old Magdalie Jean-Baptiste lives with her manman and her cousin Nadine in the basement of Madame Faustin's home in the city of Port-au-Prince. Magdalie's manman is really her aunt who took her in at age three, when Magdalie's mother (manman's younger sister) died. Manman is a servant in Madame Faustin's home where she does the cooking, cleaning and shopping. Before the earthquake, manman took good care of Magdalie and Nadine. They were poor but they went to the Catholic school and were cleanly dressed.
When the earthquake begins, Magdalie is shelling pigeon peas under the tree in Madame Faustin's garden.Madame Faustin's house collapses killing Magdalie's manman who was working on the second floor. Magdalie, Nadine and Magdalie's uncle Tonton Elie survive the quake and are forced to live in a camp on the soccer field. Magdalie's life is now very difficult but even more so when Nadine's father who is a lawyer in Miami obtains a visa for her to travel to America.
Nadine leaves in November of 2010 for America. She promises Magdalie, "Mwen pap janm lage w. I'll never let you go." Nadine promises Magdalie she will bring her to Miami too. While anxiously waiting for Nadine to contact her, Magdalie lives in a tent camp with her uncle Tonton Elie who struggles to find work to support them. The cash-for-work programs have ended and the country now is in the midst of the cholera epidemic. Magdalie spends her time cleaning and sleeping and doesn't bother to find work because she believes she will soon be leaving for the United States.But as time passes will she ever make it to Miami and leave the horror and devastation of Haiti behind?
Hold Tight Don't Let Go is a stark, honest telling of life in Haiti after the earthquake of 2010. Magdalie's life undergoes a major transformation after surviving the terrible earthquake that kills her manman. The changes in her life cause deep turmoil within her. In 2009 - year before the earthquake, Magdalie's diary entry reveals she's a girl who goes to school, follows the Brazil soccer team, and buys pink Tampicos with Nadou. She's good at history and writing. Her life is focused on everyday things such as watching her mother get up early to prepare meals for Mme. Faustin and helping her manman even though Mme. Faustin doesn't like her to do so. But now, a year after the earthquake, Magdalie's life is unrecognizable. "I don't recognize myself. And I hate this; I hate it all. I want my life back. I want to worry about ordinary things like algebra and French dictees again. I want everyone back and whole and alive."
For Magdalie, "ordinary life is now like a bad parody of ordinary life before the earthquake." She has little motivation to do much of anything. She can't attend school as her Tonton Elie has no money and she is alone. Wagner vividly portrays Magdalie's precarious situation and how much her life had changes. "I am alone, I am alone, I am alone. If I fall, there will be no one to catch me. I am responsible for myself. I have to be an adult now. No more birthdays...My old life feels like a film I saw while half asleep."
Magdalie finds herself growing angrier and angrier at her situation which she is helpless to change.
Magdalie decides to try to make extra money by selling water so she can leave the camp, leave Port-au-Prince and leave Haiti to go to Miami. But borrowing money from Nadou's friend, Jimmy ends in disaster when she is robbed on the taptap (bus). Her inability to accept the reality of her situation leads to Magdalie becoming increasingly angry at the injustice of her situation, the poverty in the capital and how it changes people. "We are all turning against one another in this country, where the hungry steal from the hungry, the poor persecute the poor. We, the poor, on the streets, visible and exposed, with no walls or windshields to keep us safe. Everyone devours us, including and most of all ourselves."
Magdalie's inability to help herself, the realization that Nadine is not going to send for her to come to Miami and a white photographer's insensitivity of the true situation in Haiti cause Magdalie to lash out. Concerned her tonton takes her to a manbo, Manman Niniz, a vodou priestess who performs a ceremony to release the anger Magdalie has. Magdalie wonders "if God has forgotten us." "The anger boils inside of me. The earthquake broke open all the sadness in my heart, and I could only patch it up again with hardness. I took my fear and my sadness and turned them into hate, because it made me feel strong instead of weak." The ritual Magdalie goes through with Manman Niniz provides Magdalie the opportunity to grieve over the loss of her manman, the loss of her life and Nadine's departure.
Magdalie's trip to Jeremie further helps her to begin to come to terms with her life as it is now and the loss of her manman. After nine days of ritual mourning and the promise of a blossoming romance with a boy her age, Magdalie begins to recover from her sadness and her anger. She leaves the mountain village with a fresh determination to return to school. "I am filled with hope and fear, because I want so much for my furture, and I don't know how I will do it, but I know I must." Magdalie represents all those young women living in impoverished countries who dream of a better life but who have little opportunity to fulfill their dreams. In Magdalie's case, fate intervenes in an encounter with Mme. Faustin whom Magdalie admonishes.
Wagner has crafted a realistic character in Magdalie whose reactions to her experiences feel authentic. Mackenson is the calm gentle foil to Magdalie's intense emotional character. Readers will find many interesting descriptions of Haitian culture and ritual surrounding death and the spiritual life. The sense of family where relatives care for those less fortunate is well portrayed.
Although the beautifully colourful cover of Hold Tight Don't Let Go suggests that this novel might be for younger teens, the realistic portrayal of life in Port-au-Prince with many references to sexual acts, prostitution and male genitalia make this a novel for older teens. Wagner provides a brief history of Haiti at the back of the novel as well as a glossary on Haitian Creole, the language spoken in Haiti.
Hold Tight Don't Let Go by Laura Rose Wagner
New York: Amulet Books 2015