CM . . .
. Volume XVII Number 1. . . .September 3, 2010
Toronto, ON: Groundwood/House of Anansi, 2010.
205 pp., pbk. & hc., $12.95 (pbk.), $18.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-0-88899-997-9 (pbk.), ISBN 978-0-88899-996-2 (hc.).
Grades 8 and up / Ages 13 and up.
Review by Ruth Latta.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
"We have good Bible studies and discussions," I said, playing up the godly bit. "It's very much like my youth group at home."
"I know there is also prayer time," Christine smiled. "But none of these have prevented precocious teens from trying things they shouldn't."
"Sistah, I'm not like that."
"No one is like that. Things just happen, hm? Listen, Glo. I know life is very interesting at sixteen and boys may be saying things to you, making suggestions. But it is a smart girl who makes up her mind early who she is going to be and what it takes to be that person."
"This love between you and me is like magic. It's made in heaven, but if you tell anyone before it is time, it will break and disappear."
His voice was so solemn, so serious. It seemed as if he might cry from the fear of our love disappearing into thin air.
"I give you my heart, Gloria. I give you my confidence. Keep it well." He took my hand and placed it on his chest, where his heart was beating furiously. "See what you do to me?"
On first glancing at the cover blurb, I thought that Between Sisters would serve mainly to educate non-Ghanaian readers about life in Ghana. Reading on, I saw that the novel does more than that. The experiences of 16-year-old Gloria Bampo in trying to find a path in life are universal, and they reminded me of the "Jerry/Garnet" section of a Canadian coming-of-age story, Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and Women.
Presented in the first person from Gloria's point of view, Between Sisters opens in Accra with Gloria's having failed all the academic subjects for her Junior Secondary School Certificate. Gone is her dream of studying fashion and dress-making at Accra Polytechnic.
Her family is poor, with few options. Her father, a former chauffeur, is out of work. Her mother sells medicinal herbs in the market, but she isn't well. Gloria's older sister is studying catering and going out with a seaman. They live in a crowded apartment where the water supply can't be relied upon. Auntie Ruby, a used clothing dealer, comes up with a suggestion for Gloria's future. Her cousin, Christine Ossei, a doctor in Kumari, whose husband is studying in England, needs a live-in caregiver for her two-year-old son.
Although Gloria is reluctant to leave home, she soon enjoys her life in a doctors' apartment building near a teaching hospital in Kumari. Living with Christine is "like having an older sister for a mother, all the care without the bossiness." Although Gloria is working for room and board only, she enjoys looking after Sam. Taking him out in his stroller, she meets a high school student her own age, Bea, and Bea's classmate, Simon, who plays guitar and wants to start a hip-hop band.
Realistic details educate readers about the lives of girls and women in Ghana. Although Gloria and her sister are always interested in whether Aunt Ruby has anything fashionable in her stock of used clothing, they regard her merchandise disdainfully, as "oburoni-wawu, the belongings of dead white people. Maa said they were not necessarily dead, only tired of their clothes." Gloria and her friend Bea prefer new clothes from Faisal's Jeans-Jeans shop in the Kumari market.
"Bea should have been one of those 'daddy's children' who went to private schools and wore ribbons in their hair," says Gloria. "But the children of ex-wives, concubines and second wives were often left to struggle in poverty with their mothers." Bea lives with her mother in the nurses' compound. Her father, Dr. Katoh, is an obstetrician-gynaecologist who teaches in the faculty of medicine and lives with another wife.
The most successful woman in the novel is Christine, who is under some stress because her husband wants her to move to England while she prefers to stay in Ghana. (Author Adwoa Badoe, now in Guelph, qualified and practised as a doctor in Ghana, but she does not indicate whether or not she used herself as a model for the fictional Christine.) Christine is shocked to discover that Gloria is functionally illiterate and undertakes to tutor her.
"The difference in life is made by literacy," she says. "I don't know what they teach in the public schools. It's about lashes for every tiny infraction and running chores and errands for your teachers and then they let you pass exams."
Although Between Sisters is a cautionary tale, its lessons are presented subtly. Like many teenagers, Gloria sometimes follows her impulses rather than keeping the big picture in mind. Unbeknownst to Christine, she does several things that have negative consequences.
Like many fictional heroines (Jane Austen's Emma, for instance, or Bathsheba in Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd), Gloria has three young men interested in her. Simon, from the band, who plans to go to university, is a good friend who doesn't pressure her in any way. Faisal of Jeans-jeans is also interested in her. "It frightened and thrilled me that Faisal seemed to like me in a special way," she says. When she needs an outfit for the band's first gig, he gives her the clothes without first requiring a down payment. "I like you, Gloria," he says. "For you I'll give half price for everything. You understand?" Bea, too, buys clothes from Faisal on a time payment plan. "I wondered how she was doing it," says Gloria, "as she never seemed to have money."
Gloria's cooking skills come in handy when it is Christine's turn to entertain her doctor colleagues. Gloria likes one in particular, Dr. Joe, who often visits with Doyoe, his fiancee. Responding to praise for her cooking, Gloria takes Joe a plate whenever she makes something special. His flashy red car and his above-average income are advantages in his social life. On one occasion, he has a discussion with Christine during which he says, "If Doyoe hears this she'll drop me for sure." Overhearing, Gloria concludes, "Someone was in trouble."
Though the novel ends in tragedy for one character, it shows others going forward with new resolve. While one of the young men remains on Gloria's horizon, Between Sisters ends with an image of women supporting each other as they strive to fulfil their potential.
Ruth Latta (http://ruthlatta.blogspot.com) lives and writes in Ottawa, ON.
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