Beka Lamb

by Zee Edgell

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Beka's StoryBeka Lamb is the debut novel of Belizean author Zee Edgell. It is the story of both Beka and Belize, an adolescent girl and an adolescent country. Set in Belize in the 1950s, fourteen-year-old Beka struggles with growing pains complicated by the society in which she lives while her country struggles to move from colonialism to independence. The novel opens with three seminal events. The young Creole teen, Beka, has just won an essay contest at St. Cecilia’s Catholic school, Beka’s lifelong friend Toycie has died (but the traditional nine-day wake has not been held for her), and two members of the Belizean Peoples’ Independent Party, Pritchard and Gladsen, are imprisoned for disloyalty to the British government. These events symbolize the often painful challenge of coping with growth and change. Narrated by flashbacks, the novel covers a period of seven months. While preparing for bed one night, Beka vows to “keep a wake” for her deceased friend Toycie “in the privacy of her own heart.” As she reminisces about the past months “waking the gone,” her story unfolds. Beka recalls that her life started to change the day she decided to stop lying. Her last lie was a big one. Failing three subjects, Beka had not been promoted to the next grade. Beka’s parents are struggling to pay for her private education. Fearing their reaction to her failure, Beka tells them that she passed, naively believing that they do not already suspect the truth. Beka’s lying habit is the most serious of the many conflicts she has with her parents. She does not clean the attic properly, she throws garbage into the yard, she steals money from her father’s pants pockets and she procrastinates with her chores. Beka’s mother, Lilla Lamb, often complains about Beka’s “laziness and ingratitude” to her husband, Bill Lamb, who then must discipline Beka. Beka seeks solace from her friend Toycie and her paternal grandmother, Granny Ivy, who shares a bedroom with Beka and usually takes her side. In spite of these parent-teen conflicts, Beka does have a loving relationship with her parents. Her family is one of only two nuclear families in the community, and while her parents do not love all that Beka does, they do love her. Beka begs her father for a second chance at school, promising to pass this time, and Bill Lamb eventually relents. A nun at Beka’s school, Sister Gabriela, takes Beka under her wing, encouraging her to enter an essay contest about Belizean history. Granny Ivy fears that Beka has no chance of winning any contest at “no convent school” because such prizes always go to “Bakras, Panias or Expatriates," but certainly not to a Creole girl. Yet Beka does win and the novel ends where it began, with the essay contest prize and a much bigger win for Beka – self confidence and hope for the future.Toycie’s Story Beka’s friend Toycie is seventeen, but she remembers what it was like to be fourteen. Beka is mature enough to “pretend seventeen” so the girls get along quite well. Both girls attend St. Cecilia’s, Toycie at a great financial sacrifice to her family. Toycie is all that Beka is not. Abandoned by her unmarried mother and father, she is raised by her Aunt Eila. They are extremely poor, yet Eila works several jobs to pay for Toycie’s tuition, knowing that education is the only way out of poverty in Belize. Beka and Toycie have been warned by the nuns about fooling around with boys and getting pregnant. Although Toycie is an excellent student and Beka must struggle,...

(This entire section contains 1518 words.)

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both girls do not want to end up like many other Creole women with no education, no husband and the only job available being “the washing bowl underneath the house bottom” or worse, prostitution. Despite Beka’s warnings to Toycie that she might “wind up with a baby if you’re not careful”, Toycie continually sneaks away to meet with Emilio, a higher class “Pania.” Granny Ivy tells Beka that Toycie is “trying to raise her color” by being with Emilio. Beka cautions Toycie that “Pania scarcely ever marry Creole like we,” and when Toycie does get pregnant, Emilio refuses to marry her like he promised. Toycie has been abandoned by her parents and her boyfriend and because she is pregnant, she is expelled from St. Cecilia’s, thus being abandoned by the church—ironically, the Sisters of Charity. Beka’s father Bill begs Sister Virgil to show charity to Toycie, reminding her that in Belize “people without resources have no strings to pull when their children get in trouble.” He points out that Emilio has not been expelled from his Jesuit school, but Sister Virgil will not budge. Losing all hope for a bright future, Toycie refuses to eat, becomes severely depressed, and jumps from a bridge into the sea. She is rescued by soldiers, miscarries the baby and is committed to the Belize Mental Asylum. Mentally unstable, she “imagines she’s at school and keeps asking when the recess bell is going to ring.” Miss Eila insists on moving Toycie to her brother’s home in Sibun River, a Creole community. Wandering off during a hurricane, Toycie is killed when a mango tree falls on her head and breaks her skull. Eila buries her right away, forsaking the traditional nine-day wake because of the expense, and it is then that Beka decides to hold her own wake for Toycie in her heart.Belize’s Story (politics and ethnicity)Beka Lamb takes place in the 1950s when Belize was seeking its own national identity and often found itself “bruk down.” Would it continue to be a British colony, the only English-speaking country in Central America? Would it be taken over by neighboring Guatemala and reintroduce Spanish culture and language? Would it be possible for Belize’s mosaic culture to unite and become independent? There are seven groups identified in the novel from the Creole point of view: Expatriates, Bakras, Creoles, Panias, Maya, Coolie, and Carib. Not coincidentally, the whiter the skin, the higher the social order (Beck). The main cultural and political conflicts in Beka Lamb are between the Creoles (mixed whites and Africans) represented by Beka’s and Toycie’s families and the Panias (mixed Spanish and native Americans) represented by Emilio’s family. Edgell skillfully weaves the history of Belize’s journey to independence into the stories of her characters. During the time frame of the novel, the Panias, who have traditionally favored Spanish control of Belize, have more economic and educational power than the Creoles. Granny Ivy is continually reminiscing about the “befo’time” when the situation was reversed. Bill Lamb has a rare white collar job, but his boss is Mr. Blanco, a Pania. The Lambs and the Blancos vacation together on St. George’s Caye every holiday, but the Lambs live below the main house and cook outdoors like servants. The Blanco and Lamb children do not play together and Mr. Blanco has a boat named “Nigger Gial.” Emilio’s parents both work for Mr. Blanco. Education in Belize is controlled by the holdover Spanish influence of the Catholic Church, so Emilio’s impregnation of Toycie represents the ultimate Spanish exploitation of Creoles. It robs Toycie of school and her only hope to escape poverty. The Creoles have traditionally sided with the British for control of Belize. Bill and Lilla Lamb are not happy with British colonialism, but they have come to accept it. “The British brand of colonialism isn’t the worse we could have,” Bill tells Beka. Granny Ivy is an important leader in the People’s Independent Party (P.I.P.), an organization fighting for an independent Belize but espousing reconciliation with Guatemala. If the P.I.P. is successful, the Lambs fear that Creoles will have to forfeit some of the gains they have achieved by being the only English-speaking country in Central America. Lilla Lamb even tries to grow English roses in her garden and Bill insists that Granny Ivy replace the blue and white P.I.P. flags celebrating Independence Day with those of the Union Jack. How can Belize reconcile these two cultures and politics? “There are so many races here I wonder what will keep us together once they [the British] leave,” Bills tells his mother Ivy. She replies that they “must unite to form a nation”—meaning establishing good relations with Guatemala. So Bill continues to import Guatemalan coffee for Mr. Blanco and Lilla and Ivy attempt to “master the cooking techniques of every ethnic group in the country from Maya to Carib,” even though the spiciness of the Spanish dishes burn Bill’s stomach. Beka and Toycie cross off the words “Hecho en Espana” from Toycie’s guitar and pencil in “Belize.” Beka’s winning essay is not only a turning point for Beka but also represents Edgell’s hope for a future where Creoles can reclaim their status in Belize, train for more professional occupations and retain their rich cultural heritage.