Human beings are magical. Bios and logos. Words made flesh, and muscle, and bone, and animated by hope and desire, belief materialized in deeds, deeds which actualize our realities. - Sylvia Wynter
Close your eyes, take deep measured breaths to detect the absence within you this book can fill. The cells wait to absorb its words, words that remind us how each breath sustains survival; absorb scenes that underscore how oppressive systems, dangerous strangers, and dearest loved ones can strangle us into a half-life; absorb pronouncements that urge us to do what we must to expand our lungs again; lines that redraw our bodies as houses that silences inhabit, enclosing fear and healing. Often, after I turned the last page, I closed my eyes to examine anew how this novel had refashioned itself within me. With every new reader a story changes and the better stories remake the world. Book of the Little Axe brought the Americas into sharper focus and multiplied its dimensions. Who would have thought to place Rosa Rendón, a black, multilingual woman born in late 18th century Trinidad amongst the Apsáalooke nation in early 19th century North America?
In a YouTube group discussion hosted by Christina Chiu, Lauren Francis-Sharma described herself as being both African-American and Caribbean-American: a child of Trinidadian immigrants to the United States of America. Narratives about Caribbean peoples' movement in the 20th century to the USA abound in numbers that allow USians to believe that we weren’t there before then. And for the people in those narratives the United States typically represents freedom, refuge, hope, sanctuary. In her sophomore title, Francis-Sharma adds a unique warp to the better known weft with a 19th century black migrant from the Caribbean, not Europe, for whom Apsáalooke territory is that symbol, not the USA which had advanced to a new life stage of colonial being in 1776. Like her fellow Caribbean-American writer of Trinidad and Tobagan heritage, Phenderson Djèlí Clark’s novella The Black God’s Drums, Book of the Little Axe is a literary sextant adding more details to the map colonialism created then erased.
The novel’s triad narratives start with Victor, a boy of mixed European, African, and Indigenous descent facing difficulties in traditional Apsáalooke rituals that mark the transition to manhood. The second is his mother Rosa Rendón’s life as the youngest and darkest of three siblings in late 18th to early 19th century Trinidad. Her dark skinned father Demas Rendón is the first generation of his family born free since enslavement, a reputable horse breeder and blacksmith; her mother Myra Robespierre is a light skinned mulatto of a once slave-owning Martinique family. The third involves the poignant first person diary entries of Creadon Rampley, a man of European and Indigenous descent, that start from his life with his father who was a Hudson’s Bay guide on Rupert’s Land to his travels further south and eventually across the Caribbean sea.
As the wind, sun, and earth shaking movements created the Antillean archipelago, so did the politics and philosophy of the time partly terraform the Rendón unit in the image of an Eurocentric patriarchal white supremacy. Marital and parental bonds are not enough to protect Rosa from the teacher’s and students’ bullying at school, especially when Myra’s initial response to Rosa’s reluctance to attend school is harsh punishment. Seeded in personal histories, it sprouts in the favour Myra shows to her lighter skinned children Eve and Jeremias, the assured negative judgement on Rosa’s physical inadequacies both in her looks and preference for what is perceived as masculine physical labour outdoors rather than the domestic work inside. The macro dynamics entangle in the warmth, rivalry, and animosity given fertile soil in sibling relationships, watered and weathered with each parent’s obvious favouritsm. Enviable horse stock, a flourishing blacksmith business, and Demas’ favour shelter Rosa for a time until the British invasion creates a downturn in the family fortunes.
Francis-Sharma shapes Rosa’s Apsáalooke family into a kind of plane mirror to the one in Trinidad with the seamless back and forth between past and present allowing the reader to descry how Rosa shaped her familial legacy and how it shaped her. How does and how can she help with Victor’s conflicted feelings of belonging and unbelonging? It was riveting to read about a Black Caribbean woman and her offspring in the charged, shared histories between African and Native Americans. Apsáalooke elder governance is infinitely preferable to European colonizers, yet gender norms of whatever kind are a widespread reality and difference always carries the potential to spur conflict. In 1830 North America there are few if any Indigenous peoples left who can impede the destructive influence of whiteness which enters this community in the form of a once enslaved girl of a Shawanwa mother and White French slave owner who sees in Victor’s visible difference an easily sighted target for obscuring her own.
With the Shawanwa girl’s appearance enters a destructive violence that never seems to leave for long. Creadon Rampley’s diary entries feature some of the most poignant reflections—in what is a rather heartbreaking work—as he processes the violence and loss that behave like willful agents bent on deforming him into their image. From childhood he has observed and experienced first hand how men mete violence against all those they scent as most vulnerable. At eight years old the adults around him in different ways made him feel ashamed for being abused and modeled that the only fitting response for such action was unrestrained escalation. Much of his life is a reckoning on whether he can afford to allow this violence to pressurize him into its image and still retain any semblance of the self that he feels he barely has a hold of. Further experiences open him up to the realisation that as harsh as his life is, and it is, under colonialism the system can render a free black landed man more helpless and vulnerable than he.
Though men believe they are especially burdened with and anointed dispensers of violence women are not spared in the world beyond or on the page. The first scene between a nine year old Rosa and 12 year old brother Jeremias is one where he drags her by the bonnet ribbons wrung around her throat. Victor is frustrated at his mother’s silences around her family history, especially when he learns that it is likely what blocks him from seeing the visions his peers see when they all take part in fasting rituals. But those silences can be, for a time, the bonding agents that keep a person from disintegrating. Rosa is another memorable iteration of that complicated mother figure who exists outside of the idealised mirages societies sell to us. The reader comes to know her as her son cannot. To him she can be remote, unyielding, coldly dispassionate—in one conversation she says in a wry tone that every day she thinks of killing him. Yet who worked harder for his survival? Children are ill-equipped and unprepared if not disinclined to see their parents as beings as vulnerable to life’s misfortunes, walking harbours to their own wrecks and plutonic sorrows.
It is one of Victor’s own sorrows that pushes him and Rosa out of Apsáalooke territory. As the story follows them in the present and Creadon in the past, Francis-Sharma is as conscious of the lands they move in as the living beings that inhabit it. Not since my reading of Michelle Cliff’s Bodies of Water short stories collection have I read a non-Indigenous writer who foregrounded the fact that the people walk on Indigenous land. I have seen too many films and read too many books where the characters refer to such spaces as “Indian territory” and the writer appears either oblivious of or indifferent about naming the different nations in the words from their own language. Set against the borders of Rupert’s Land in the north and Tejas in the south, the British, French, and Spanish presence prove the unfortunate connection to Trinidad in the Caribbean, a much smaller island forced to contain all three with the African and much diminished Indigenous peoples. These connections are ones Caribbean people have never had the luxury to not know but ignorance of which still persists among too many different Americans (not just the white ones).
At its core Book of the Little Axe is a sprawling family drama of the Americas holding within it all the messy contradictions that allow people to endure and even thrive in a world that seems to require from too many of us some measure of brokenness. Or is its core Lauren Francis-Sharma’s centering of mixed race characters, particularly those who carry an oral history of Indigenous ancestry, in light of how there are nations who now use the tools of white supremacist governments to strip them of it? Or is it about how those who exist outside of any one society’s norms survive the ruptures often forced upon them, the tainted compromises they have to make? Rather than seek to confine this work with definitions I urge you to take part in the privilege that it is to read it, especially for Rosa, who drew my focus on every page she graced, although she remained in parts elusive in contrast to Creadon’s magnetic and seemingly open, confessional voice. Bear witness to how all these breathing animated characters actualised their realities.
Book of the Little Axe
By Lauren Francis-Sharma
400 pages. 2020.