Beka Lamb

by Zee Edgell

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Beka Lamb is a deceptively simple novel that touches upon the universal themes of human life—love, loss, sexuality, and community. It is set in a unique time and place—Belize in the 1950s. While the story of Belizean independence is unfolding around them, the characters struggle with friendships and relationships in a cultural milieu that represents these challenges on a greater social and political level. Narrated through the eyes of a girl maturing into womanhood, the novel explores the personal growing pains of the characters and the national growing pains of the country, offering hope that surviving such painful growth will ultimately redeem and strengthen both characters and country. Beka Lamb is a “coming-of-age novel" for both Beka and Belize.

Growth and maturity are important themes that manifest themselves through the novel’s strong symbolism. Beka plants a beautiful bougainvillea bush that soon grows out of control and encroaches on her neighbor Miss Boysie’s property. To keep the peace, Bill Lamb cuts it down. After Toycie’s death jolts the characters into the realization that they must unite and support each other to survive, Miss Boysie admits that she misses the bougainvillea. When a new sprout of hope appears, a trellis is built to brace the plant and encourage its new growth. During the storm that develops over Toycie’s pregnancy and subsequent abandonment by Emilio and the church, a violent hurricane forces community members to seek shelter in each others’ homes where they encourage each other while waiting out the storm. Everyone survives except Toycie who is killed when a mango tree falls on her. The replanting of the bougainvillea, therefore, serves “as a remembrance for Toycie” and a reminder to the community of what is necessary to achieve Sister Virgil’s “long term development” of Belize.

As Beka struggles to establish her identity in her family and in her community, she learns that although one takes some steps forward and some steps backward in life, one must always be making progress. That forward progress, as Sister Gabriela advises her, is a direct result of her “attitude.” So Beka must suffer the consequences of lying, yet she can learn to channel that lying into writing fiction in her notebook. She must pay the price for “fooling around” instead of doing her work by repeating a grade, but her reward is an education that can propel her out of poverty. She can grieve and hold a wake in her heart for Toycie, but she learns that for the present, a diploma is more important than a baby. She can eat spicy foods and speak Spanish, yet not forget how to use her “best Creole drawl.” She learns to recognize that religion has both Sisters Gabriela and Virgil. She learns that life in Belize is a melting pot of Expatriates, Bakras, Creoles, Panias, Maya, Coolies and Caribs, but that they all have worth. By winning the essay contest, Beka has taken an important first step towards maturation. She proves to herself that what she had hoped could be true—that all things were possible—is true. Having learned these lessons, she has changed from what her mother calls a “flat-rate Belize Creole into a person with high mind.”

Belize must also establish its identity. The theme of nationalism parallels Beka’s personal search for identity. Under the British Empire, Belize was called British Honduras. When the novel takes place, Belize was still suffering under the “befo’ time” scars of colonialism while struggling to move forward towards “nowadays” independence. But what should that independence look like? Colonial rivalry between England and Spain has existed in Belize for hundreds of years....

(This entire section contains 917 words.)

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Should Belize take advantage of its being the only English-speaking country in Central America and align itself with England and the United States? Or should Belize acknowledge its Spanish heritage and accept the territorial claims of Guatemala? This conflict is represented in the novel by Beka and Toycie. Toycie’s hold on things is slipping away as she clings to the Pania Emilio and lets go of Beka. There also is turmoil in the Lamb household. Bill and Lilla want Beka to look towards the future yet Granny Ivy encourages Beka not to forget the ways of the past, the ways that have made Belize strong. The imprisonment of the two men from the P.I.P. at the beginning of the novel is an important first step for Belize towards independence.

As things fall apart in Beka’s life, she tells Sister Gabriela that sometimes she feels “Bruk down, like my country.” Several times, characters express the idea that everything that comes to Belize breaks down. Granny Ivy tells of a circus polar bear that died because of the heat. Sister Gabriela tells of seeing broken down machinery that could not be fixed for lack of parts. Sister Gabriela, however, is of the same mind as Voltaire in Candide that “we must cultivate our own gardens” and tells Beka to “find some way to make it work, even if you have to learn to make that part.” Beka learns to make that part and so must Belize. At the time of the novel, Belize is still looking for replacement parts, however. It was not until 1981 that it finally achieved its independence. Through Beka’s success, however, Edgell expresses hope for Belize’s future that one day its many cultures will come together and say, with Granny Ivy, that “everyone’s home is paradise.”