Review: Serafina’s Promise by Ann E. Burg

Serafina's Promise

Serafina has
a secret dream.

She wants to go to school
and become a doctor
with her best friend, Julie Marie.

But in their rural village
outside Port-au-Prince, Haiti,
many obstacles
stand in Serafina’s way–
little money,
never-ending chores,
and Manman’s worries.

More powerful even
than all of these
are the heavy rains
and the shaking earth
that test Serafina’s resolve
in ways she never dreamed. — [X]

I know, I know. My first official post for the month and I’m already deviating from the list that I had handed Janet for the intro. I came across Serafina’s Promise while reading this post* on social cleansing and the ousting of Haitian immigrants from the Dominican Republic, and I have to say, I feel pretty okay deviating from my list.

From the first page itself, Serafina steals your heart. Her hands, to paraphrase poet Sarah Kay, are much to small to catch all the pain she wants to heal. But that is what’s so remarkable about her: Serafina is a young, small girl whose heart swells to match the hurt around her and never shrinks to shy away from the pain. That is not to say that she is a perfect child, merely that even before she voices her hope of being a doctor someday, she already has the instincts of a healer. These instincts, however, seem to set her up for a lot of hurt. She simply does not have the tools and knowledge for the goals she wants to accomplish:

In August, Manman

will have her baby.

If I work hard

and help Manman,

maybe this time

our baby will live. — Page 2.

Her father says it best, really, when he tell her that her heart is too big for her little body (page 21). When her newborn brother unfortunately passes away, Serafina wants to know why. She wants to know if she should have given her share of rice to her Manman to make her stronger. She wants to know “someone so small could leave so big a hole” (page 19).

Amidst the sorrow of watching little Pierre’s fading health, however, she meets a doctor. Observing Antoinette Solaine work is what enables Serafina to put her own ambitions into words: she wants to go to school and become a doctor so mothers would never have to bury their kids. While this is an easy thing to admit to her friend Julie Marie (whose family, like Serafina’s, cannot afford school), it is an entirely different thing to broach the subject with her parents and her grandmother.

While waiting for the perfect moment to talk to her father about school, Serafina learns about her country:

The flag is not just a piece of cloth,

Gogo says as we scrub

and rinse the supper dishes.

The flag remembers

what the world forgets.

We were slaves, but now we’re free. — Page 28.

All this history was leading up to Serafina learning how her Granpé was killed, and she wonders what “good is being brave / if being brave gets you killed?” And yet, the more she thinks about it, the more her absent Granpé and Haiti’s history influence her. She prays to her grandfather, to have his strength; to be able to stand up for what one believes in, no matter what. It takes time and a lot of hard work, but Serafina does end up going to school. And for a while, all is well. She learns to write her name. She learns more of her history, and is rather insightful about it:

He said that the Spanish queen

paid for Christopher Columbus’ voyage,

so Christopher Columbus

gave the queen our land.

How, I wonder, can you give away

something that doesn’t belong to you? — Page 184.

And her mother has given birth to another boy, Gregory, who seems healthy and happy. Serafina and Gogo are managing to pay for school by growing vegetables in their garden. But school brings with it its own challenges. Learning French (over Haitian Creole) which is seen as the better, more admirable, more acceptable language annoys Serafina. And an annoyed Serafina raises some very good points:

I don’t think

knowing French

makes me smarter.

It just means

I know French. — Page 205.

Serafina decides she wants hands-on knowledge of medicine. She wants to apprentice with Doctor Solaine. When Gregory’s health takes a turn, Serafina resolves to skip school and go in search of the doctor. Midway through her plan, though:

Youn tranbleman té.

An earthquake.

Even the word makes me shudder. — Page 247.

Serafina’s Promise may not have all the history– how could it, it is one girl’s journey– but it is definitely a great starting point for people who want to learn about Haiti. I see this book being very useful in a classroom and maybe even working for reluctant readers. The poetry may be simple but is emotionally rich and the history is minimalistic, clearly meant to encourage further study. At the end of the book Burg includes a helpful section on “Haitian Creole Alphabet and Pronunciation” and a “Glossary of Foreign Phrases”. An extensive acknowledgements section also reveals some of Burg’s research sources, from public libraries to college libraries and the Haitian People’s Support Project, leading her to yet more resources whose knowledge of Haiti was both personal and academic. Overall, Serafina’s Promise is a fast, engaging read and, like its eponymous character, has a heart bigger than its body.

*That article has a whole bunch of links to fiction and non-fiction for people interested in reading up on the DR and Haiti.

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