Historical Context

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The country that Seth's family comes from, Haiti, is an island in the Caribbean Sea. It is part of a string of islands known as the West Indies, which stretches from the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico to the coast of Florida. There are about 7.2 million people in Haiti, of which roughly seventy-five percent live in poverty (by comparison, the U.S. poverty rate was fourteen percent in 1995). The country has a history of poverty, which has itself caused even worse poverty. There is no industry, and only about one-fifth of the land can be used for farming because careless farming techniques in the past have leeched all of the nutrients out of the soil. Diseases, from AIDS to tuberculosis, run rampant because the country has no resources for an effective public health policy. The country has little hope of keeping up with the technological boom, since only forty to forty-five percent of the population knows how to read. Newspaper circulation is three per one thousand people; there is one telephone per 164 people, and one television for every 260 people. The life expectancy for men is 47 years of age, and for women it is 51, while in the United States it is 73 for men and 79 for women.

The main reason for Haiti's poverty is its economic development throughout history. European culture came to Haiti in 1492, when Christopher Columbus landed there. It was a base for the slave trade in the 1700s, which has led to a population descended from African heritage and to the country's French influence, which is evident in the kreyol language Seth' s grandmother speaks (kreyol, commonly spelled creole, is a mixture of French, English and African dialects). In 1801 Haiti declared itself free from France, but its history had been a struggle to hold onto its freedom. From 1915 to 1934 the country was occupied by the United States in order to keep France and Spain from establishing forces in the Western Hemisphere.

After World War II Haiti came under the control of the Duvalier family. François Duvalier was elected in 1957, and by 1958 he declared absolute rule, outlawing his political rivals. When he died in 1971 his son Jean Claude Duvalier took control. Popular unrest drove him into exile in 1986, after which chaos ruled, with a quick succession of governments. In 1990 Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a Roman Catholic priest and advocate of the poor, was elected, but the military refused to let him rule, and he was driven into exile. Aristide's supporters continued to stand up to the government, and in return the government fought the people, committing numerous atrocities and human rights violations. In 1994 United States diplomatic forces forced the military leader to let Aristide return to the office that was rightfully his. He ruled until his successor was elected in 1996.

Sojourner Truth
The speech that Samona recites for the talent part of the Little Miss Dorchester competition is one of the most famous speeches in American history. It was given by former slave Sojourner Truth at the 1851 Women's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. She as born with the name Isabella in 1797 or 1798 in upstate New York. She was a slave from the time of her birth until slavery was abolished in New York in 1828. After that, she became a Protestant preacher and worked with the poor in New York City. She changed her name to Sojourner Truth in 1843 and took off preaching across the country. She became involved in the movement to abolish slavery, and then later in the...

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Women's Rights movement.

There is some doubt about the actual wording ofherfamous ‘‘Ain't IA Woman?’’ speech because the person who is said to have written it down, Frances Gage, who was president of the convention, did not publish it until twelve years later. Still, there is no doubt about the powerful effect of the speech. It was given after the convention had been addressed by several male ministers on the subject of male superiority, claiming that God meant men to be superior because Jesus was a man and because men were intellectually superior. Sojourner Truth's response was not rehearsed or in any way planned: she just walked to the podium and spoke to the audience.

For the next twenty years, Sojourner Truth traveled the country, speaking and preaching. She met with President Lincoln in 1864 to encourage him to go ahead with his plans to free the slaves. In 1875 she retired to Battle Creek, Michigan, where she died in 1883.

Literary Style

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Point of View
Seth Michelin is the narrator of this story, and as a result the events that readers see are filtered through the mind of this eleven-year-old boy. For the most part, this is what makes the story interesting. He comes from a Haitian family and lives in the working-class section of a big city during the 1990s, and this is a perspective that is not often shown in books. Readers find that their expectations about the types of people who live in Seth's world are overturned by reading this story. Not only does Mrs. Fabiyi, the strange old lady, turn out to actually be nice, which is a standard turn of events in many children's stories, but Seth and Samona breaks stereotypes with characters like Anthony, a former gang member who had gone on to college; Reggie, a current gang member who is learning to read and is slowly breaking away from the culture of violence; Chantal, who is respectful of her parents' Haitian and also rebellious; and Bessie Armstrong, who is pretty and popular but who can also be seen with pity because of her joyless home life. Readers come to understand these characters and others because of Seth's interaction with them, and their unique qualities make perfect sense because Seth accepts them so casually as part of his world.

As a narrator, though, Seth cannot be trusted entirely. Like most typical eleven-year-old boys, he is not willing to admit that he likes a girl, especially a girl who is as unique and exotic as Samona. As a result, he often makes a point of complaining about her and he puts her down with mild insults. This is clear from the book's first page, telling of their first encounter. Seth is captivated by Samona because he can see her underwear, and he cannot stop staring at her, but rather than admit any attraction, as he tells the reader, "Right then and there I thought, 'That Samona Gemini is one crazy girl and I plan to stay away from her.'’’ Of course, he does not, and the rest of the book is about adventures that they have together, with Seth weakly making excuses about how fate throws them together time and again in spite of his ‘‘lifelong plan of avoiding her.’’

Episodic Plot
Unlike most novels, which follow one story from beginning to end, Seth and Samona is told as a series of episodes. The story of their visit to Mrs. Fabiyi's house is completely finished before the episode about the wake for Matant Margaret begins; the next story, about Jean-Claude and Jerome, begins just after the visitors who came to town for the funeral leave; and the plans for the Little Miss Dorchester contest are only seriously discussed after that plot line is finished. There are some overlapping points between these stories, so that none of them could actually stand alone without having a few sentences edited out. For instance, the beauty contest is mentioned as early as the end of Chapter 2, and Mrs. Fabiyi, who Samona learned not to fear in the first section, helps Samona in the last. Chantal’ s relationship with Jerome is just mentioned in the section about the wake, preparing readers for the time a few chapters later when it will be at the center of the plot. And the fact that Mr. Biggs, who is Mrs. Gemini's date for the beauty pageant, is an ex-Nation of Islam minister is referred to back in chapter 5, when she says that she has a magazine assignment to investigate an ex-minister. The plot is easy to follow because it consists of four short stories instead of one long, complex one, but it also connects those stories together smoothly.

Even though this novel consists of four stories, the end of the final one is clearly the high point of the book. Each of the individual stories has something to tell readers about courage, about family, about meeting social expectations and going beyond them, but it is Samona's triumphant performance at the Little Miss Dorchester competition that summarizes what the book is all about. For one thing, it strikes a balance between Samona's goofy, childish behavior of earlier escapades and the "new Samona,’’ the one with curled hair and makeup, which Seth fears will erase all of the individuality from her. Also, the finale shows Seth changing, loosening up from his attitude about Samona's youthful fun. His chicken dance in front of the entire auditorium shows that, when it comes down to it, despite his complaining, he will do what he has to do to help his friend Samona, and also that her oddball behavior is more important to him than social acceptance. It is telling that Samona's performance at the book's climax is Sojourner Truth's speech, which supports the rights of blacks, women and the poor, who have in the past been made outcasts in American society. Samona is striking a blow for individuality by using the intellectual approach of history, while Seth supports individuality with unique behavior. In this moment they both reverse roles and come to see the world from the other person's perspective.

Literary Heritage
Haiti has always been one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, and as a result literature has not been a high priority for its inhabitants. To this day, between twenty and forty-five percent of the country's inhabitants are unable to read, and those who have been able to attain an education have used it to fight against the country's debilitating poverty. In addition to this, women have been abandoned to a secondary position in Haitian society, as is seen in Seth and Samona by Chantal's struggle against her parents' expectations that she will be a housekeeper or take a menial job. As a result of these conditions, there is not a very large canon of writing by Haitian women.

The first novels by Haitian women began appearing around 1934, at the end of the U.S. occupation of the country. As with many cultures, the first female authors wrote romances, writing to an audience of other women, not taken seriously as literary artists. For the following decades, Haitian writers in general, and women in particular, were virtually ignored by American and European literary establishments. It was only during the 1960s, with the ascendancy of the Civil Rights movement and the Women's Rights movement, that individual writers from Haiti began to make their mark. By the 1990s, when the excessive violence and repression if the Duvalier government and its military successors became international news, the world was hungry for information about Haiti. In response to the repressive government, a literature of social consciousness and rebellion had grown up among the people who had escaped Haitian poverty but could not forget it. Most of the Haitian writers who have established any degree of fame are, like Joanne Hyppolite, emigrants who have left the country and are looking back on the life that they once knew.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Campbell, Elaine, and Pierette Frickey, eds., The Whistling Bird: Woman Writers of the Caribbean, Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1998.

Review in Horn Book, 1995.

Further Reading
Chancey, Myriam J. A., Framing Silence: Revolutionary Novels by Haitian Women, Rutgers University Press, 1997.
When Haitian politics is discussed, the role of female artists is usually underrepresented. This book takes a strongly feminist approach toward events and literature. This is one of the few books that addresses the history of radicalism in Haitian women's literature and the way that the political history of the country throughout the twentieth century affected it.

Rochman, Hazel, review, in Booklist, May 1, 1995.
This collection is very non-political, choosing examples that celebrate life over those that are meant to promote an agenda.

Rotberg, Robert I., Haiti: The Politics of Squalor, Houghton Mifflin, 1971.
This dated history does not have the most recent information about the country, but it does give a good and thorough background of what life was like up to the 1970s.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide