I love to dance. Throw in a celebration like my dearest’s cousin’s wedding and I am on the dance floor! My cousin married into a Jamaican-British family and the dance at their wedding was so much fun. One person starts a move and people learn and dance as they go. Then, someone else would jump in and give a new move. Perhaps it is not something done a lot in Jamaica (I have no way of knowing), but the Jamaicans I was around that night sure knew how to move!
As I was reading Small Island by Andrea Levy I couldn’t help but think of my cousin’s new in-laws and if their family were treated the same way as the Jamaicans in London during and after WWII.
Throughout the novel, Levy writes from the perspective of four individuals and how they become part of each other’s lives all because of WWII. Queenie and her husband Bernard live in London. When Bernard goes off to fight for England in WWII, Queenie starts to take in renters to make ends meet, and also to feel less alone. Hortense and her husband Gilbert move to England from Jamaica after the war, where Gilbert went to fight alongside the British and the Canadians.
As I’m sure you can predict, London is not so welcome to anyone but the British after the war. For Gilbert and his new wife, life is very hard. People ignore them. People stare at them. Children run up to touch them. People mock them and yell at them. People humiliate them. People treat that worse than animals. All of this for a man, and his wife, who fought alongside the same men who now turn him away from work. Yet Levy includes a few moments of hope: an elderly woman picks up Gilbert’s dropped glove, has a conversation with him and then offers him a candy; Queenie welcomes both Gilbert and Hortense into her house and begins a genuine friendship with them.
I have to admit, I watched the BBC adaptation before reading the book. The story was so interesting and new that I couldn’t help but find the book.
In both the BBC adaptation and in the novel, there are a few things that have stuck in my mind.
1.) Optimism. Even after being denied so much, the characters in the novel, specifically Gilbert the young Jamaican RAF veteran, still maintain hope for a better life. They take the insults and the punches and they continue to make a life in England.
2.) Acceptance. Throughout the entire story, Queenie, the London wife left alone during the war, accepts the Jamaicans that land on her door step. She will speak with these West Indies men in the street. She will go to the shops with her Jamaican border. She even has an affair with a Jamaican man.
3.) Telling a forgotten story. I’m from Canada and we love to tell stories about how great we are, and we are pretty great. Yet, Canada has a lot of things that should make all Canadians enrages. Things like internment camps, legalized racism when it comes to real estate, using race as a wage determiner, barring certain races and religions from immigrating, and pretty much every Treaty and deal with the First Nations since the 1800s into the present day. That is why I appreciate Levy’s story. It doesn’t gloss over the racism and resistance during WWII and just after in England toward different cultures, specifically those from Jamaica.
4.) Realizations. Hortense dreams of moving to England. She spends her whole life studying England and everything about it: how to cook, geography, production, exports, shops, history, and language. Her dreams are shattered once she realizes that the country she has dreamed of is dirty, ill-spoken, and rude. Yet she decides to stay and make the best of her new life. Just as the immigrants who came before her, Hortense realized that expectations aren’t always reality.
“Why you wan’ the whole world when ya have a likkle piece a hope here? Stay. Stay and fight, man. Fight till you look ‘pon what you wan’ see.” (Andrea Levy)
“Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.” (Romans 12:12)