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An Embroidered Family Heirloom

By Carolyn See,
who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com
Friday, March 21, 2008

FROM HARVEY RIVER

A Memoir of My Mother and Her Island

By Lorna Goodison

Amistad. 288 pp. $24.95

Lorna Goodison, the internationally known Jamaican poet, has now written a family memoir. "From Harvey River" covers some generic colonial matters: how white men, both respectable and disreputable, came to the island a couple of hundred years ago to make their fortunes and find new lives; how masses of the "native" (i.e., African) population were in one way or another uprooted from their land and ended up in the inhospitable but fascinating city of Kingston, where they had to learn new skills to stay afloat. But Goodison intermingles her more personal material with reverent and luminous memories of her mother and four aunts, the "Fabulous Harvey Girls," who hailed from the lovely little rural hamlet of Harvey River: young women who burned up the place with their beauty and pizazz -- until they walked out of their youth in various directions, enduring the vicissitudes and challenges of the larger world, armed mostly with the etiquette and strong beliefs they had learned in their Eden-like childhood home.

Ah, beautiful! Beautiful is the life Goodison evokes from the far-distant past: Jamaica as paradise, inhabited by West Africans who stand on the beaches (sometimes on just one leg with the other tucked beneath them), gazing eastward across the ocean to the lost homeland they remember only in dreams. Beautiful, the stories of her two white great-grandfathers: one, the upright William Harvey, who had a black wife and answered his critics by saying that "any woman who was good enough to share his bed was good enough for him to marry"; and the other, an Irish deserter who jumped ship, drank and hung around brothels on the island until he married into a wealthy Creole family desperate to lighten the color of its descendants' skin. Then he spotted an ebony-black girl whom he was crazy about but never did marry. They had a child, and though the Irishman was morally wanting, he brought a terrific talent for shoemaking into the extended family.

The upright William Harvey started a small dynasty. His dutiful wife worked day and night, his business flourished, and soon they accumulated some wealth. They had six children and a big house and polished mahogany furniture and flowered china, but they did their laundry out of doors and bathed daily in the river. In Jamaica, slaves had been emancipated since 1838, and the society was fluid, still sorting itself into castes and classes, with many unfortunates still toiling in the cane fields, others working just as hard at less backbreaking jobs, putting together a good life that seemed (nostalgically speaking) as close to heaven as you could get on this Earth.

In a long, lovely set piece, the author imagines her mother and sisters as teenagers getting dressed up to go into the closest town, about five miles away, to buy fabric for the many outfits they ran up on sewing machines for themselves. They dawdled through the first half of the day, changing their clothes maybe a half-dozen times, then got up on a couple of horses and meandered on paths toward the town. Goodison gives us pictures of them taken at about that time, photographic portraits of five young ladies, dressed to the nines, as cute and stylish as can be.

The author's mother, Doris, married a sweet man named Marcus, a mechanic who dreamed of owning a garage. The first years of their married life were, again, idyllic, with good food and family traditions and children and friends. Then Marcus lost everything, and they had to move to the city. Kingston was a nightmare of savagery, poverty, hopelessness and bad manners, but Doris rose to the occasion, being mean when she had to be, taking awful jobs but always managing to put food on the table. She worked for a while in the Kingston insane asylum but ended up as a seamstress, fashioning beautiful clothes for people who really needed them. She raised a total of nine children.

This is, no doubt, a "women's" book, filled as it is with instructions for the correct way to perform women's chores: rising before dawn to stoke wood fires, to make coffee for one's husband and chocolate for the kids; a list of the proper meals for Sundays, holidays, small family gatherings and parties with lots of guests. Another lovely set piece involves the wedding of a hunchbacked lady, radiant in a dress that Doris has sewn -- a wedding with an elaborate cake and refreshments and merrymaking. The bride dies a short time later, but she has had her wedding, buoyed up by a network of generosity and tradition.

This is Goodison's tribute to her mother, but more than that, it is a window that opens onto a society that most of us will never know.

Sunday in Book World

¿ Johnny One-Eye witnesses the Revolutionary War.

¿ Parag Khanna visits "The Second World."

¿ Martha Sherrill meets a man who loves dogs.

¿ A translator explains Darfur.

¿ And comic books change America.

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