Sat | Mar 28, 2020

The blight of poverty

Published:Sunday | September 30, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Glenville Ashby

Book: The Ice Migration

Author: Jacqueline Crooks

Critic: Glenville Ashby, PhD

Novelist Jacqueline Crooks stares down the prayerful optimist in The Ice Migration. And blink she doesn't.

In this literary marvel, life is plagued by harsh relentless forces that suck the will to live. Lives are played out in desperation, and actors instinctively cling to life. In a fatalistic nightmare, realities are blurred, mere inventions of the mind for sanity's sake.

The daily toil is back-breaking. Shiny blades attach themselves to the wretched of the land slashing their way through the resisting cane piece.

Crooks pays homage to the forgotten who are swept into the garbage dump of history. But some stories survive, reminders of fate's cruel twists.

It is circa the 1920s in Jamaica, and a generation of indentured servants see their identity stripped by a contractual promise that is as weightless as the paper it is written on. We are in the breast of colonialism: reckless, self-serving, and dismissive of oppressed and oppressor alike.

In this barren landscape, death stalks and the plague of existence is ever present.

Hardship levelled every ounce of pride and ambition. In a verbal spar between two villagers, the record is set straight. 'In this place? Brahmans, Kshatriyas, Chamars, Dhobis and Dons - everyone working in sh**!'

Even pedigree and means cannot guard against the blight of the canepiece. Harold Sleifer, retired at fifty-five, "feared the adumbration that covered his every move".

And poor Rosalita, the postmistress, is forever fractured by the passing of her son, claimed by a distant land.

Decades later, young Mickey would be another casualty of a land far way.

And duppies, ghosts of the fallen, follow the weary. "Indian spirits [fly] low over the fields of cane, looking for the secret land-passages of ice now hidden beneath the sea-searching for their way home."

The ice migration has beckoned, and the human will is tested - again - unforgivingly. Culture shock is an understatement. It is more than resistance to patois in the classroom setting: "What kinda language [the teacher] think me speakin' if it not English?'

It much bigger than that.

Death stalks, threatens and delivers its threat. "What if the paraffin heaters burnt the house down, like the house on Alexander Avenue, killing twenty-three Indians that had cooped up inside three rooms?"

Duppies are no longer fantastical creations to escape reality's harshness. They are now realities driving the fragile minds to madness and despair. Voices, untamed, are heard. They come from thin air with reckless abandon. The sanatorium awaits the stricken.

And here, religion is theatrical, a drama that evokes the fears of a people, their lives personifying devils that must be vanquished. Mesmerised, children are slain in the spirit. "Tutus knows that the morning service has opened her up," we read. "She can feel the buzzing in her eyes, the light fizzing in her ears."

In this psychological maelstrom, spiritism is a balm. To others, it offers a skewed sense of power.

In Ice Migration poverty is the constant companion. Dreams are shattered and innocence is devoured by lust.

"Muma-Miller and Poppa-Miller never talked about love; all they seem to talk about was rivers of blood."

Children can be observant.

Resentment and guilt follow Crooks' characters wherever they might be.

Her Ice Migration extinguishes every ember of hope. Its dark-grey clouds hang menacingly over an icy, soulless terrain.

Crooks' words dance around at a dizzying pace, forming stark images of despair.

Wounds are unfathomably deep. For all it's worth, Crooks lays bare the nastiness of reality.

The years parade by, and immigrants struggle to find meaning in their adopted home.

In the bristling cold, Muma reminisced on the hardships back home with surprising romanticism: "Things would have been different with Baba-Lulla ... but maaga as he was, he was trouble when he was drunk."

Back home, "she used to step-it with Baba-Lulla to Secret Cove market - twenty miles and more away. They strolled barefoot along dirt tracks, and in the rainy season they slithered together through red mud. [But now] walking in the snow was a more slippery affair ...[And she] was too old to be learning new tricks."

When Tutus returns to the tropics, the smell of resignation is still toxic. Baba-Lulla, now blind but ever resilient, longs for the 'ole days, laborious as they were.

'40-something years now Ruby gone,' he tells Tutus, 'but her spirit never leave this yah place ... I need her here, to stop this haunting ... Tainos was trying to get back to that ice place them come from ... Sometimes people do go back. They have no choice. No more haunting, my child. No more. You staying here, or you going back?'

An unnerving denouement awaits. From the Roaring Hills Village of Jamaica to South Hill in England, the restless, haunting spirits of the Tainos are more real than ever imagined.

Publisher: Peepal Tree

ISBN: 978-1- 84523-358-7

Available at Amazon

Ratings: Highly recommended

Feedback: or follow him on Twitter@glenvilleashby.