Thursday, January 12, 2017

Three Leaves, Three Roots and a Dream - A reading of Ann E. Burg's Serafina's Promise

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"Banza, I have nothing to give..." so says Serafina to her dog as he wags his tail and follows her. Serafina is busy with the daily chores she ought to complete. She has no school to go to, no time to play with friends either. But the faithful dog follows her, seeking only her love and affection. The elders tell her that a 'kind heart is the fanciest dress' and Serafina is kind. But she is unhappy too.

Serafina's Promise by Ann E. Burg is one book that will stay with me forever. I read it in one go - a story in verse form. It revolves around the little Serafina, who grows up in the earthquake-ridden, flood-prone Haiti. Full of Haitian wisdom, the book makes a compelling read. Just when the 11 year old's dream of going to school is fulfilled, hurdles cross her path. Serafina is beset with questions. She cannot find answers to all her doubts. Why does one need to remember? Wherein lies the bravery of fighting if it means losing your life? What is it that the flag remembers? Is the petty grudge she harbors for her friend who goes to school really worth it? What does it mean to be really educated? Is learning a colonial language a betrayal or a means to achieving a position from where one can speak? She slowly discovers for herself the complex thing called life.

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Serafina yearns to be a doctor. But poverty has trapped her. The death of her brother is followed by the birth of another one, whose arrival she thinks will make up for all the losses she has suffered. His birth is a hope that clings to Serafina's heart. She wishes to be just like Antoinette Solaine, the nurse, who tends to the children in the village. Grandma tells Serafina to stand up for herself - if you want your eggs hatched, you need to sit on them yourself. Serafina's father too pushes her to speak, to assert, to convince others of her beliefs. Despite the restraints imposed on her dreams by her financial conditions, Serafina promises herself to become a doctor, to save those in her village from ailments, from misery, from death.

Serafina's mother is reluctant to send her to school but she loves her and helps her wade through the rising waters. Serafina's father is poor but 'happy' that he could 'afford ribbons for Serafina's hair'. Amidst all the trials and tribulations, Serafina discovers something :

I wonder what hunger is like
without a family
to fill the emptiness.....

It is not a perfect family but it definitely is the strong foundation on which rests Serafina's life. After all the failures, one has to try again. After falling down, one ought to get up again. No matter what happens, one has to "beat the drum and dance again".

The book emphasizes how history is a significantly defining factor of who we are today. Remembering is a way of showing respect. Remembering is a means of assuring that the past sacrifices were not in vain. It is important not to forget so that it does not happen again - the injustice, the anguish, the sacrifice. 

Three leaves, Three roots......

To throw down is to forget.....

To gather up is to remember.....

'Twa Fey' or Three Leaves - The song is indigenous to Haitian culture - a song of recollecting, of bearing testimony to the struggles the country has been through. It is part of incorporating a 'collective consciousness' among listeners, and singers. They stand united in memory, in thoughts. Twa Fey is a song of blending in, of unifying, of solidarity within a group that shares a common past. Twa Fey for Serafina stands for her family, her village, her country.

Serafina gives back. Her kindness makes her courageous too. And in testing situations, she fights back. She keeps her promise. She embraces the 'conqueror's language' for the time being, to equip herself, to gather the right tools to bring the change she longs for....

The sun rises
the sun sets,
little by little the bird
builds its nest!

The book is meant for young readers. Brimming with wisdom and raising topics to help young minds think and interrogate the 'givens', Serafina's Promise is a promise of betterment to reconstruct the society on the foundation of hope, memory and courage.

The verse form of the narrative is captivating and keeps the reader engaged. Ann E. Burg has managed to insinuate on topics that would be tough for young minds to comprehend in an ingenious way. The everyday struggles of people living in poverty, the desperate need for medical aid, the utmost and indispensable necessity of dreams and a firm belief that they will come true one day are some of the crucial themes in the book. The "stethoscope" may be "broken" but its very presence is an indicator of hope. The "doctor's bell" may be like a "misplaced star" but it still emits light. 

In the poem titled "The Problem with History Books", Ann E. Burg states that "research has its limits.." It is true as far as fiction is concerned. And the beauty of poetry is precisely this - it lets you expand your horizon. It lets you imagine. Serafina's Promise gives space for imagination to soar as the little girl dreams and ventures on a path that is unknown to her. As she tries to light up the lives of those around her, her own life starts radiating too. After all the devastation of floods and earthquakes, her dream lingers as a promise that she can keep forever. It will "sprout" too like the seeds she has sown in the soil. It is the "history of the human heart" (to borrow the words of William Collins) that the mesmerizing poetry of Burg's novel chronicles - a history of hope, of dreams, of promise. 

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  1. A story in verse form? Amazing!
    Your review makes me feel like reading the book:)

    1. It is worth reading and re-reading....I loved it so much....

  2. Seems like a powerful hard hitting story, no doubt it will stay for long!

    1. Yes, it will Shweta....It is an unforgettable read....

  3. I love reading books meant for younger readers but are so full of wisdom for all ages. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Do try it Corinne.....You will love it....It is so positive....

  4. I am hearing about this book for the first time, but loved the concept. Thanks for the recommendation, Sunaina :)

  5. A must read. Thanks for sharing. Sounds like a good one.

  6. I like books that have a message and turn things for good. This one looks like that.

  7. I love to read a good and meaningful book. Thanks for sharing this one :)