Hold Tight, Don’t Let Go opens in the chaos of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti that killed over 230,000 people and displaced 1.5 million more. Describing the disaster that claimed both her home and the life of her beloved aunt, 15-year-old protagonist Magdalie says: “The sound and shaking become one sensation—I can’t separate the two—and the world collapses.” It is a description that fits the thematic heart of Laura Rose Wagner’s tragic novel of physical sensation, familial separation, and literal collapse.
When Magdalie loses her aunt, she loses a guardian who has always been her “manman” (mother). Her beloved cousin, Nadine, survives. But eventually this girl, who has been like a twin sister to her, is sent away to live with her father in America. Their closeness fades with the distance and passing days, along with the likelihood of going to America ever becoming a reality for Magdalie. Homeless, grieving, and vulnerable in a setting of desperate survival, Magdalie questions the role of God’s will and the future of her country.
This is a highly sensory novel, with Wagner paying close attention to the sights and sounds of the quake’s immediate aftermath—the dust, blood, and screaming—and the dangerously unsanitary conditions of the Port-au-prince streets, where homeless survivors must live amidst decaying bodies and deplorable camp toilets. Readers will not soon forget the novel’s vivid images of poverty and abuse. But Wagner’s attentiveness honors the intricacies of Haiti’s landscape, infrastructure, and people—all heartbreakingly altered by the earthquake but not necessarily defeated by it.
Wagner was in Haiti during the quake. Eventually she went back and started a writing group with survivors, so it is no surprise that she highlights the restorative power of literacy in Magdalie’s traumatized life. Education gives shape to her memories and a voice to both her despair and hopefulness. “City of promise, city of loss,” is a line Madgalie writes in a poem about her years in Port-au-prince after the quake—a juxtaposition that is true of her entire country. Haiti is a broken country with a history of oppression and disparity; it is a beautiful seaside country known for a vibrant art scene and the sense of humor displayed by its people.
Wagner has written a captivating coming-of-age story that awakens readers to the realities of disaster and poverty without minimizing the resilient dignity and potential that live inside every child of God.
This book is classified as a young adult novel but is recommended, with good reason, for ages 14 and up because of its disturbing situations and graphic scenes. (Banner review)
Note: Over on the Relief Journal blog I’ll be sharing some reflections on literacy, poetry, and my time in Haiti as a World Renew staff writer. So stay tuned there in the coming weeks if you’d like to read those.