Fola, in the early part of the novel, finds herself at a crossroads. Established in a well-to-do, middle-class family and having recently finished “the most exclusive girl’s college in San Cristobal,” she has available a future of conventional promise. Yet, in attending the voodoo-like Ceremony of Souls and involuntarily participating in the rites, she realizes that “she was a stranger within her own forgotten gates.” She feels a compelling need to rediscover the missing elements within her own forgotten gates. Rather than remain satisfied with a life of bland material aspirations, she chooses to take the “backward glance” into her own and her society’s cultural pasts. Her mother and stepfather are protective and vigilant of her welfare, but she sees their love as a “prison especially built to secure her loyalty.” Her search for completeness prompts her to consider severing loyalties with her middle-class past in her effort to discover her genuine identity. In searching for her actual, unknown father, she is also seeking a more legitimate tradition, one which encompasses and acknowledges the African and peasant background of her society.
In the course of her quest, Fola’s relationships with others are explored. She is suspicious of her mother’s secrecy concerning the daughter’s paternity, and Fola sees her mother’s physical and sexual attractiveness as cheap and vulgar. Fola’s stepfather is sterile, and this condition augments the esteem he feels for her, but he beats her and casts her out when he believes that she has shamefully repudiated his pretentious world. In fact, she has become “Fola and other than”; she has outstripped the role her parents and class have programmed for her. She has indulged in romantic infatuation with her European teacher of history, Charlot, who leaves San Cristobal, in a gesture likely nourished by vanity, after introducing Fola to the voodoo ceremony which jolts her and sets her on her quest. This quest leads her to seek answers in the peasant world. There, she meets and is befriended by Chiki, the compassionate and distressed artist who champions the deprived masses. Here also, however, she is threatened by Powell, who sees her (“you an’ your lot”) as an incorrigible enemy. Here, too, is Gort, who rescues her from Powell’s murderous assault and who in turn is assisted by Fola and Chiki in thwarting the government’s plans to ban the steel bands. Fola proves to be a resourceful character, with strong inner resolve which equips her to withstand biases of her class and education and enables her to become an integral factor in the revolt.
Agnes, Fola’s mother, a “cream sugared beauty,” is much more than physically attractive: She has a sense of pride which inspires her to exhibit a dignified demeanor, and she is devoted to the welfare of her daughter and the professional promotion of her husband. Still, Agnes has critical vulnerabilities. She is unable to communicate with Fola; she is jealous of the closeness of Fola and Piggot. This inability to communicate becomes explosively critical in the process of Fola’s rebellion from her parents’ world. At one point, Fola thinks of Agnes simply as “that woman.”
Toward the end of the novel, some illuminating details...