Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann
When Barbados wins its independence from Britain in 1966, Christopher is about to turn fourteen. He lives with his grandmother in a village just outside a small, unnamed city. His best friend is Stephie, who is six months older and lives next door with her grandmother, Mrs. King.
Christopher’s grandmother and Mrs. Smith are very close friends, and Christopher and Stephie have grown up together, singing songs across their adjoining yards at night, waiting for their mothers to write from over-’n’-away, the northern lands where those two women went to seek a new life so long ago. But the postman never stops to deliver any letters for them.
When a neighbour, Mr. Lashley, comes back from Canada, Mrs. King gets Stephie a job cleaning his house. But soon afterward Stephie starts staying away from him, and Christopher becomes concerned. Stephie keeps to her room and doesn’t come out often. When she does, it is only to do her job at Mr. Lashley’s and watch his brand new television, the only one in their village. The other village kids watch too, from outside, peering through the large window. But not Christopher—his grandmother won’t allow it. A daily churchgoer, she is very strict with her grandson. His days are structured by chores (feeding the chickens and pigs in their yard), school, and cricket practice. Nights are for studying, not going to parties with children his age or watching television. So Christopher focuses on his books and cricket, for which he has a budding talent as a batsman. He makes the school team as a freshman in high school, a rare feat. He is accepted as an equal by the older boys and encouraged by the coach. It is one of the many steps toward adulthood Christopher begins to take this year.
As the year passes, and it becomes clear why Stephie is behaving the way she is, Christopher’s awareness of things around him grows. He begins to perceive the layers of the reality of village life that childhood and his protective grandmother have insulated him from. Depth and complexity start to crowd out simplicity, in particular the disturbing truth behind why Stephie works for Mr. Lashley—until her aunt comes and takes her away.
Independence takes its time. The reader first sinks into the rhythms of the Barbadian English the characters speak, and with each scene, the slow cadences of Barbadian village life take over. The title, of course, has many meanings, not just that Barbados is no longer a British colony. Primarily, it refers to Christopher’s growth into a young man, creating an identity for himself, while observing the decisions people make and the consequences that affect them. But this is also a story about the multiple faces of love—between Christopher and Stephie, between the children and their grandmothers, between those two old women. And also the expression of love among their neighbours. Love is declared and nurtured, rejected and abandoned. What’s missing, of course, is parental love. The missing mothers hover over the story, but remain unknown and unexplained. Their absence is a fact, but they are a mystery. Do they love their children? If so, why no letters to them? Or is their silence another, a tougher expression of love, a recognition that all a letter would do would be to create a gulf between the children and the people around them, who take care of them, make them foreigners still living at home? There is no answer. Only increasing awareness of all the unanswerable questions life asks. Yet Independence is an upbeat book, full of the headiness of the trials of growing up but always returning to the wonder of life’s possibilities.
Independence is published by HarperCollins Canada.