My mother tells me all the time that if you don’t trouble trouble, then trouble won’t trouble you.
When I originally decided to start reviewing books from my childhood, I don’t think I was quite aware of how white my reading was. I mean, I did in an ephemeral sense, in the sense that publishing has long been dominated by white voices, but it wasn’t an immediate thing. Then I started asking, “Hey everyone, give me some older MG/YA books written by POC from the 80s!” I received one suggestion, I then discovered Virginia Hamilton and reviewed Justice and Her Brothers, which was a blessing. But the dearth remained. Simultaneously, I’ve watched the MG/YA markets explode into a riot of color, a chorus of voices from around the world and that… that made me question everything that I’ve been doing. Are there great books from my childhood that deserve a look as an adult? That deserve to be handed to a younger generation? Damn straight and hopefully I’ve been able to show that to you, but there is so much more to explore and I am ready to explore it! Which brings me to The Jumbies, by Tracey Baptiste. Someone suggested this book to me when I asked for a horror novel by a black writer so that I could both celebrate Black Speculative Fiction Month and Halloween at the same time! And WOW did this book deliver!
The Jumbies is the story of young Corinne la Mer, a confident and precocious child that isn’t afraid of anything, especially not the tales that parents tell to keep their children out of trouble. But when she ventures into the woods one day, something follows her out and Corinne is forced to confront all the horrors that she didn’t even know she was connected to. Corinne is joined in this tale by the precious Dru (Indo-Trinidadian representation, ftw!) and the wild orphans, Bouki and Malik, all of whom have their part to play and their lessons to learn, which gave a perfect balance to the experience and multiple characters for children to enter the story through. But still, at the heart is Corinne, the child of a fishermen and… a Jumbie.
On one hand that reveal is a major spoiler, on the other hand it’s the central driver of the conflict that you discover early in the pages, because the thing that follows Corinne out of the woods is, in fact, her Aunt Severine, a powerful Jumbie that is feeling lost without her sister (Corinne’s mother having passed when she was very small) and without an answer to the question of ‘Why did she leave me?’ But make no mistake, this is one of the scariest Aunts in the history of scary Aunts, for Severine is fiercely protective of her land and her people. In some ways, by the end of this book, despite the very real horrors playing across the page, it’s very difficult not to sympathize with Severine and the collection of Jumbies that Tracey Baptiste has collected in the pages of this book. (Jumbies are malevolent tricksters, that most white people will not be familiar with, taken straight from Tracey Baptiste’s childhood in Trinidad. I won’t tell you what they all are, because it’s too much fun to hear about them through the voices of the book, but needless to say, I’ll be watching out for children with backward feet and ladies in white dresses from now on). But that’s what made this horror story so compelling! This isn’t just a fable about finding what your strength is, it’s also a story about colonialism, about how slaves had to adapt to new lands, and learning to live in harmony with place. And they have to do all of that while fighting off a monster made of roots and crawling with insects. *shudder*
I haven’t even mentioned the additional cast of characters in this story: Corinne’s father, the protective baker Hugo, Dru’s family, the White Witch, and the collection of people, and one very special frog, that make up the vibrant life on the island, despite how small that island feels. The island itself, the plants, the trees, the cliffs, the mud, and the weather all are beautifully depicted by Baptiste’s prose, which makes this doubly enjoyable for an adult. Most interesting though is that I also had a feeling of being trapped by that space for a great deal of the book, something which I’m still having trouble decoding as a reader, but I suspect has to do with how well Baptiste was able to capture how Severine’s power is so melded with nature. Regardless, I hope you take the time to pick up a copy of The Jumbies, not just because it’s a wonderful introduction to stories that are not straight out of Grimm’s fairytales, but because it’s a wonderful story of a child finding her place in the world.
Written by Tracey Baptiste
Published in 2015 by Algonquin Young Readers