Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1753
Fourteen-year-old Beka lives with her father Bill, her mother Lilla, two younger brothers Chuku and Zandy and her Grandmother Ivy. She has some typical teen insecurities and rebelliousness, but she loves and respects her parents even though she does not always understand their discipline. Beka realizes that her family has more advantages than most of the other Creole families; plus, her friends and neighbors often remind her how lucky she is to be living with a mother and father, rare in the Creole community. Beka is well-liked by her community and is always ready with a smile. People remark that they can see “Beka’s teeth coming before any other part of her.” She has one good friend, Toycie Qualo. Beka is not yet interested in boys and does not like Toycie’s boyfriend, Emilio. Beka is curious and has a good sense of humor, but she procrastinates and is lazy about her school work. Her “fooling around instead of doing my work” causes her to fail three subjects and she is not promoted to the next level at St. Cecilia’s Catholic School for Girls. Beka aspires to be a politician and serve her country one day, but she must conquer school first.
Beka’s inner turmoil is representative of Belize’s turmoil. Like Belize, Beka is caught between the worlds of “befo’time” and “nowadays” and is constantly evaluating the characteristics of old versus new, accepting some and discarding others. She attends political meetings with her Granny Ivy but also questions her father about his political beliefs. Seeking her own identity often causes conflicts that she describes as a “tidal waves” in her mind. She straightens her hair and insists on speaking Spanish and wearing lipstick. This prompts her father to label her a phony, which she detests more than the beatings she receives for lying. She tries to stay out of trouble at school, but when she announces her doubts about the existence of heaven and hell, Sister Virgil and Father Nunez suggest that perhaps she should not be educated in a Catholic school.
Beka continues to learn and grow with each of life’s lessons but Toycie’s tragedy is the most impacting lesson of all. Toycie’s death not only strengthens her resolve to “never fall in love” but it also convinces her she must complete her education. Beka learns to channel her passion and intelligence and becomes a mature woman who can correct her mistakes. She blossoms into a self-confidant young woman who is not even afraid to slip into her Creole dialect to make a point to Sister Gabriela while her mother smiles approvingly. Beka learns that she controls her destiny and with hard work, she will not be condemned to a life like that of the Coolie prostitute, National Vellor, who tells Beka, “No mother, no father, no school. What could I do?”
Seventeen-year-old Toycie is Beka’s best friend. Toycie lives with her maternal aunt, Eila because her mother abandoned her and moved to Brooklyn when Toycie was two years old. The Qualos are extremely poor but Beka does not realize it at first because she views everything from Toycie’s eyes which “embellished everything with bright sparks of what she believed could be.” Toycie is intelligent, talented, and beautiful. She plays the guitar and is helpful and well-liked by everyone. Toycie works hard at school, realizing and appreciating that her aunt must work several jobs to pay her tuition. Her unmarried aunt has failed to give Toycie any counseling about the dangers of premarital sex, however, so lacking any positive male influence in her life, Toycie is easy prey to Emilio’s overtures.
As Toycie’s relationship with Emilio intensifies and Beka decides to apply herself to her studies, the two girls drift apart. When Toycie becomes pregnant, her life is ruined. She is abandoned once again and does not even receive grace from the Sisters of Charity, who expel her from school. She loses the will to live, stops eating and eventually loses her sanity. She is killed during a hurricane when a mango tree falls on her and shatters her skull.
Granny Ivy is Beka’s maternal grandmother. She lives with her son’s family and shares an attic bedroom with Beka. She loves to tell stories about how things were in Belize “befo’time” and although she thinks most things were better than they are “nowadays,” she is hopeful that “things can change fi true.” She is politically active in the Peoples’ Independent Party and is often at odds with her son over her support of this organization, which opposes British colonial rule. Granny Ivy is a role model for Beka, often siding with Beka in arguments with her parents. She confides to Beka at the end of the novel that she, too, became pregnant out of wedlock but she didn’t “break down and die” like Toycie. She had wanted to train animals in a circus but she wound up “rocking the cradle.” Unlike Toycie, however, Granny Ivy is not a victim. She tells Beka, “It’s sad if you lost your virginity unmarried and to the wrong man, but if you lose it, you lose it. There’s no need to degrade yourself.”
Lilla is Beka’s mother. Lilla often complains to her husband about Beka’s behavior and then feels guilty when he beats Beka. Lilla is a stay-at-home mother of three children, a rarity in the Creole culture. She respects her mother-in-law Ivy, even though she does not always agree with her views. Lilla is genuinely concerned about Beka’s development and remembers what it was like to be a girl. She consoles Beka that the scar left by her father’s beating will fade with oil treatments and convinces her husband to allow Beka to hot comb her hair to straighten it, not to cross cultural lines, but because it is the style. She resists Granny Ivy’s “befo’ time” stories because she feels it will hinder Beka from looking into the future. Lilla encourages Beka to find her voice by giving her a notebook and a beautiful fountain pen with which to write down her “fictions.” She encourages Beka to enter the essay contest, providing the final bit of advice that allows Beka to finish her essay. Lilla is a wise woman who is tries to prevent her daughter from suffering the same indignities she endured as “the blackest and poorest one in my class.” She urges Beka to “be strong like London with all those bombs falling.” She has had only two years of high school and her husband has had none. This is not going to happen to Beka if she can help it.
Bill is Beka’s father. Belize is a matriarchal society and the major characters in Beka Lamb are female, but Beka’s father’s is more than a mere breadwinner, as he often complains. “I have no say in this family,” he protests. “I only provide the money.” Bill provides more than that. He works hard to support his family and raise their level of existence. He works long hours for Mr. Blanco and his reputation for being a tough taskmaster has earned him the nickname “Wild Bill.” He is the primary disciplinarian of Beka, even though he inadvertently hurts her with his belt buckle, after which he is immediately remorseful. He, too, believes in the power of education to improve one’s station in life and gives Beka a second chance to succeed at school. When Toycie is expelled, Bill courageously confronts the nuns on her behalf, bravely entreating Sister Virgil not to wait for change but to be “brave enough to make that change.” Bill becomes Toycie and Eila’s champion, directing Toycie’s hospital care and helping with her move to Sibun River. It is Bill who breaks the dreadful news of Toycie’s death to Beka.
Sister Gabriela and Sister Virgil
These two nuns are Sisters of Charity at St. Cecilia’s Catholic School, where both Beka and Toycie are students. They each represent an aspect of religion as viewed by Zee Edgell.
Sister Gabriela is loving and merciful. She is an encourager. She takes Beka under her wing. She is an American who has grown up on a farm in Wisconsin. New at St. Cecilia’s, Sister Gabriela is not as familiar with Beka’s history as the other nuns. Beka describes her as being “tremendous” in every way: “her large frame, her eyes, her gigantic nose, but especially her smile which made Beka think ‘With her, all things seem possible.’” Sister Gabriela recognizes something unique in Beka and encourages her to enter an essay contest, even though Beka does not believe she has a chance of winning. Sister Gabriela assures Beka that while it is possible for her to win, winning is not the point. She reminds Beka that she is being given advantages that most other Belizean girls do not have. Therefore it is her duty to make the best of it and serve her country. “You must go as far as the limitations of your life will allow” she tells Beka. Sometimes things only seem like they are “bruk down” when in fact, they are “not breaking down at all, sometimes things are taking a different shape.” She tells Beka she needs to change her attitude, try to recognize the difference and then “do something about it.”
Sister Virgil is assertive and uncompromising. She is the head nun at St. Cecilia’s. Unlike Sister Gabriela, she is a strict disciplinarian. She is more concerned with enforcing rules than exhibiting charity and grace. She adamantly refuses to bend the rules at St. Cecilia’s and allow Toycie to return to school after she has her baby. She coldly tells Bill Lamb that she believes it is up to girls to practice “modesty” with regard to boys. If they get pregnant, it is their fault. Bill Lamb’s entreaty to her that Toycie “needs hope” falls upon deaf ears. She informs Bill that “women must learn to control our emotions.” It is up to women to change their own lives. If they do not, they will remain vulnerable like Toycie. Her words are harsh, yet they ring true. By her characterization of these two Sisters of Charity, Edgell seems to be calling upon the church to exhibit both strength and mercy for the “long term development” of Belize.
See eNotes Ad-Free
Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.