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Bones Become Flowers
Tracy Carter seems to be living the African-American Dream, her forty acres a beautiful home in the Oakland, California foothills, her mule a $50K Land Rover. She has a very eclectic but practical education, the means to indulge her taste for art; and at age thirty-three she owns a successful boat-building business, as well as being heir to her family fortune. So why do we find her in Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, battling alone through savage mountains and jungle forests in a rusty old car with no spare tire? Is she on a mission to "save" Haiti's children? Is she searching for her ancestral roots? ...Or, could she be on an unconscious quest for something much deeper, something long-buried in vine-tangled graveyards and shrouded in moonlit shadows of Voodoo? The meaning of life? Or the secrets buried within her own soul? Tracy's journey is like the voyage of a weary old ship fighting her way through a raging storm, beaten and pounded by roaring waves, whipped and battered by howling winds, and slashed by rain that cuts like knives. Like that ship, she must abandon all her cargo to survive, throw everything overboard into the sea, every possession of earthly value, in hope of reaching home.
Jess Mowry's Bones Become Flowers is a novel that is so compelling and so sensuous, so visionary and authentic, that the deeper you get into it the clearer you see how skillfully he balances its tenderness with its brutality, its compassion with its obsession. Written in prose that is both flexible and controlled, it's a novel full of contrasting parts, ideas and elements -- dignity and desperation, art and life, self-reliance and "fate", a ship of "wild" boys and a humanitarian American woman, a seasoned novelist and a precocious, doomed, beautiful child-genius. Set in a magical place -- Jeremie, Haiti -- Mowry's story is one of a strange sea voyage, of commonplace miracles, of shanties and disease, rape and Voodoo -- and the bright colors of death. But in this moonlit wasteland the power of redemption is equal to the devastation.
Clarence Major - author of Dirty Bird Blues
Jess Mowry's creativity shines brilliantly his lyrical and richly descriptive new novel. Set in modern-day Haiti, it invites us into an unsettling and disturbing world of forgotten children -- children who nonetheless teach us that love and human connection offer a way of transcending despair and even death itself. A provocative and thoroughly engaging read, Bones Become Flowers is a rejuvenating experience for the heart and spirit.
The starkness of Mowry's fiction is hypnotic. The characters in Bones Become Flowers are more than words on a page. They are raw portraits revealing roughly hewn edges of reality, reminding us we are not living in a perfect world. Yet not a world without hope. Mowry hits us with that reality square in the face on every page while weaving a tight plot set to a rhythmic Voodoo beat.
William July III - author of Brothers, Lust and Love
With his latest novel, Jess Mowry sweeps us away from his usual innercity setting and into one just as tragic -- modern-day Haiti. In Bones Become Flowers, Mowry shows us a world of devastating povery, far more hopeless than any American child knows, a setting in which children struggle to survive under horrific conditions unimaginable by this country's standards. But not only is this a look into the lives of an oppressed people and a caring American woman, it is also a story of incredible magic. mystifying fantasy, and the Voodu of love. Extremely vivid in its imagery, Bones Become Flowers is another masterpiece from Mowry, who shows that he can evoke emotions and touch the heart no matter where his stories take place.
Apollo - author of Concrete Candy
When I first received Bones Become Flowers, I entered the book in my catalogue and tagged it "Haiti, Vodou, Voodoo." Now I've finished it I've expanded the list: "Haiti, Vodou, Voodoo, religion, culture, social justice, social structure, history, children, boys, poverty, African-American."
Jess Mowry says on his website: "Almost all my stories and books are for and about black kids, who are not always cute and cuddly. My characters often spit, sweat and swear, as well as occasionally smoke or drink. Just like their real-world counterparts some are 'overweight' and have no desire to get skinny, or they may look 'too black,' or are otherwise unacceptable by superficial American values... including some African-American values. Like on-the-real kids, they often live in dirty, violent environments and are forced into sometimes unpleasant lifestyles.
I have devoted my career, such as it is, to writing positive but realistic books and stories, not only for and about black kids, but also for 'white' kids so they will understand that the negative stereotypes aren't true... that most black kids have other interests besides guns, gangs, drugs, violence, becoming rap stars, or playing basketball."
Bones Become Flowers certainly falls into this category. No simple romp, it depicts dense and vivid cultures, both African-American and Haitian, reflects on mores and prejudice, plays on literary passages, and examines the politics of gender and sex. It is multi-layered, exciting, brutal, and kind.
Mowry knows well Haiti's painful and provocative truths. He delivers a ground-level view of history in meaty, candid prose. Yet this history is not over-simplified; many sides of issues are represented, creating an ethical tension that only increases the truthfulness of the book.
Tracy Carter, a black American woman with some cash behind her and a lot of compassion for kids, travels to Haiti with the intention of donating a sum of money to an orphanage in the mountains near Jérèmie. She is a tough, impatient, self-aware woman who is critically aware of oppression, particularly the oppression of children. Yet her character is leavened with wry humor and gentle affection. Her resolute insistence on following the truth, however elusive or uncomfortable, makes her an uncompromising and merciful protagonist.
From start to finish her journey is anything but clear-cut. She encounters a horrifying ritual on a beach en route to Jérèmie, uncovers a painful mystery connected to the orphanage, and sets out to find a talented ex-resident of that institution, to encourage his art and bring him, perhaps, to America, where he could truly flower.
The story is carried by well drawn characters whose motivations are refreshingly free from stereotype. The children are scarred and insolent, reeking and scheming, playful and beautiful, greedy and tender. Tracy is determined, impulsive, and passionately caring. Her heart goes out to children many would deplore and fear; she sees beauty in ugliness, and cherishes all. If your aim is to aid humanity, her actions seem to say, you can't stop with the people who please you. The shy, clean, obedient, and well-spoken. Mowry draws our attention to the children society turns away from, and puts our noses in their stink, holding us there long enough, perhaps, for us to stop reacting against what we dislike and fear and see who is really there. He offers us a chance to be more human than we were before.
Some of Tracy's reactions seem strange to me, not because they are strange, but because they're not my own. But in the main I'm able to follow where her thoughts lead, and even when I am disagreeing with a particular aim (such as bringing the young artist to America) or action, I am wholeheartedly in support of her underlying intentions and am rooting for her to see clearly and decide well.
There is much detail in this book about Haiti, about Tracy, and about the characters she comes to know; Father Avery, Remy the artist, his brain-damaged friends, Jingo and Jango, and the people of Cayes Squellette. There is never a risk of forgetting where you are. Each place becomes real, its textures and smells and nuances defined and heady. Not every detailed jived with my own experience of Haiti, but enough did that I could say, yes, I am there.
"The stream grew swifter and deeper as they descended through the twisting ravine. The water now looked like frothing chocolate. Other small streams were joining it, fed by the rain on the mountains above and leaping down rocks and through branches and vines. A muddy cascade poured over the Jeep from an outcropping, flooding the windshield with yellowish foam and roaring on the roof as they passed underneath. The rushing brook rattled like hail on the hood whenever a patch of gray sky showed through the leaves." pg.162
Much of the book is inner dialogue. Tracy's reflections on her own young life and the realities faced by black American youths are every bit as striking as her thoughts about Haiti's children. She ponders issues at length, many and important issues, and her thoughts are irreverent, frank, and informed with a lack of prettiness and pretension that could in other writers' hands devolve into stereotype and easy answers.
Mowry doesn't allow himself or his protagonist easy answers. In a book so concerned with oppression, with a protagonist so aware of it, there is the danger that she will be portrayed as flawless, always noble, always right, a hero against the forces of evil. But Tracy is not free from oppressor patterns herself; she is not always able to see clearly between her First World certainties and Third World truths. Nor, as readers, are we certain what is right and what is wrong, anymore than she is. Is the priest, who we meet in the early part of the book, correct in his beliefs about what the children need and what they have to sacrifice? Is Tracy correct in her disagreement with him? Is her acquisition of a carving that serves a religious function in its community only selfish arrogance, or is it a thoughtful and caring act? Are the people of Cayes Squellette unnecessarily cruel or uncannily wise? One of the great values of Bones Become Flowers is the opportunities it offers to question our own assumptions and reactions, and to open ourselves to other possibilities.
At times I wished there was a little less detail or reflection, but it never became a problem. If I had my editor's knife, I would have cut a bit here and there, would have suggested that a word or two (seminal being the major one) were used over-much and might be alternated with other words. But these are thin complaints for a book that has fearless vision and a relentless valuing of human beings, whatever their apparent value or role in society, and however they may screw up or simply not appeal.
Bones Become Flowers took me places I would never have guessed it would. Some of those places are not for the squeamish. The positive light that Vodou is cast in will alienate some readers, but for me it was a relief. After the plethora of fear-soaked depictions of zombies and houngans, it's refreshing to be given a different angle on this religion.
The bit that made me squirm was the attention paid to the corpulence and sexuality of a number of the adolescent boys. Why did it make me squirm?
Partly because I hadn't finished the book and was not trusting the writer's ultimate understanding of those themes. Early descriptions of the fat children were unflattering, and fat oppression is an issue I feel strongly about. With my editor's knife I would have suggested a word change or two. But would that have been necessary? Was I just reacting? I'm not sure. Because in fact the fatness of the children was never seen by the characters as a bad thing. In fact, it was seen as highly positive. I rubbed my mental eyes at not one, but several fat children in the book because I never once saw a fat child in Haiti, except one youngster visiting from Miami.
I was missing the point.
The young god Esu appears in conjunction with the Undertaker in Bones Become Flowers. The gaunt, tall Undertaker receives the dead, and the impish, hedonistic Esu inspires life. His huge tummy is a symbol of his good fortune and the love and care which the people bestow on him. The fat children in the book are linked to him.
The sexuality. It makes complete sense in terms of the story. It just comes up so darned often! These youngsters are randy as heck. And this is a problem why?
I don't think it actually is. There's nothing pornographic about the book. My discomfort arises when adults speak of children's sexuality in any but the most scientific way. I fear they'll fall into, or will be accused of, using it to pleasure themselves, that rather than a dispassionate depiction of the kids themselves, it could veer into pedophilia. I get nervous in the same way that elementary school teachers get nervous when unknown adults wander into a school. In a world where we've seen so much sexual abuse of children, we've become flighty at the mere thought of children's own sexuality, let alone adults referring to it in a book. Nevertheless, however much I cringe when Mowry refers to kids having sex, I never experience it as titillation. Whether it always works completely with the plot; I am thinking of one scene of sex between two boys out on the street, something I can't even imagine in the Haiti I know; is another matter. In the main, I think it does, and indeed adds something important to our understanding of the characters.
Bones Become Flowers is a fascinating, appealing, and encouraging story. Kudos to Mowry for gathering so many disparate strands of life in difficult lands, and for lifting the whole from sociology to self-awareness and art.
I'm grateful to have met Tracy, and travelled with her to a Haiti I can never encounter, myself. Mowry's dream is a demonstration of his great thoughtfulness. To have followed Tracy from Jérèmie to Father Avery's orphanage, to the rusty old Enfant Vagabond, to the island community of Cayes Squellette and their gods, was a pleasure and a gift.
"a tiny, gentle, and isolated culture that loved its children as it loved itself." pg. 366
Well done, Jess Mowry. And thanks.
© 2009: Casey June Wolf - author of Finding Creatures and Other Stories