Growing up Barefoot in Montserrat: a Review

With apologies to the author who gave me this book for review a lifetime ago, especially since, as a writer I know waiting for the review can be a slow kind of torture.

By Joanne C. Hillhouse

David R. Bradshaw’s Growing up Barefoot Under Montserrat’s Sleeping Volcano: Memories from a Colonial Childhood in a British Caribbean Island 1952 – 1961 has an entirely too long title. It is a sign of things to come though in a self-published book in which not even minor details are swept into the corner. Perhaps because Bradshaw is not just telling a story, he’s investigating a mystery and laying out the sometimes sparse evidence before the reader. Think ‘Who do you think you are?’ (TV show).

It is, in a superficial sense, also in the spirit of narratives like To Shoot Hard Labour and Journeycakes (both by Antiguan authors) except it doesn’t quite, as they do, elevate the personal to broader social import. There are common touch stones; for instance, the role of the extended family, in particular Bradshaw’s Grandma Joanna, in childrearing, often in the absence of parents who have either died or migrated. That story (and the grandmother/tanty at the heart of it) is a familiar chapter in the story of the Caribbean in the 20th century, a feature of my own fictional work The Boy from Willow Bend.  And Bradshaw in an interesting and insightful note, speculates that at some point, she who has carried many – maybe too many –children on her broad shoulders “may not have had any reserves left” for the kind of affection a child needs; that child being him (and all the children of that generation), of course.

So there are broader insights to be gleaned if you’re looking for it. But telling the social history of Montserrat is, on the surface of it, incidental to Bradshaw’s purpose. He’s looking for himself. The book – though readable and at points quite vivid and poignant – in the end feels less a public product; more a private journal-slash-scrap book of memories and mysteries (with blurry, faded memorabilia such as ticket stubs and passport pages to complement).

But inasmuch as it provides some insight to the process of pulling the scattered pieces of a life together – part memory, part deduction, interviews, following the paper trail, invention at times;

Some snapshots of life in the Caribbean-then from the hen pecked black dog in the backyard to the pits of the school yard to the complications (if not the personal cost) of travel and migration;

And periodic access to moments of genuine drama and emotion – the uncomfortable chapter on the abuse he suffered at the hands of an old white neighbor, and the image of this man, the author, struggling with this confession, comes to mind …

It does rise above the self-indulgent “everybody has a story in them” mantra that opens the book.

I use the word self-indulgent with reservation because while it could be argued that everyone has a story in them but not everyone will be interested in that story, in the Caribbean, among afro-Caribbean people, who have seen so little of themselves in literary canon, there is precedent and meaning behind the desire to tell their story too. In the spirit of the slave narratives that gave voice to the voiceless, these latter day memoirs are about underscoring their humanity. There is value in that as well, and invaluable social history is being captured in these personal stories as much as their cousins, reflections on village life like Joy Lawrence’s Bethesda and Christian Hill. And the compulsion to re-capture that time, re-capture that self, doesn’t change simply because you’ve gone on to become a lawyer in London as Bradshaw has; in fact, that distance from home probably makes it even more urgent, the questioning like a nagging ache who am I? who am I?

“Out I popped, head first I presume, on the eighteenth day of September 1952.”

So it begins, a reflective and humorous undertone, a balance of detail and speculation, a jump-right-into-it there-ness.

“My birth certificate states that I, David Reinford Bradshaw, was born at Ryner’s Village on the island, to my father James Alfred Bradshaw, ‘labourer’ of the said village, and my mother Margaret Ann.”

The author questions:  “Why did my mother leave me to be brought up by a non-parent during my late infancy/early boyhood?” And then he goes digging, lining up the evidence as he finds it, then interprets that evidence. That pattern is repeated throughout, and the investigation detailed – whom he approached about what and why, what information they were able to supply, what he was able to make of it, and so on. It’s interesting, the connections this allows him to make, but gets a bit tedious at times (and at times leaves the reader reeling; the mathematics involved in figuring Joanna’s actual age for instance). As noted earlier, though, it can read as a handbook for this kind of personal research and an at times touching tale of a man’s discovery of his personal history – a history with which Montserratians and Eastern Caribbeaners of a certain time can surely identify.

As with all content on wadadlipen.wordpress.com, except otherwise noted, this is written by Joanne C. Hillhouse (author of The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, and Oh Gad!). All Rights Reserved. If you enjoyed it, check out my page on Amazon and/or Facebook, and help spread the word about Wadadli Pen and my books. You can also subscribe to the site to keep up with future updates. Thanks.

3 Comments

Filed under Caribbean Plus Lit News

3 responses to “Growing up Barefoot in Montserrat: a Review

  1. Pingback: Blogger on books | Wadadli Pen

  2. Clarissa

    I think your comments about this book are very fair but it could perhaps have been noted that it is the first of a series which follows the author from his beginnings on a small island in the Caribbean, to subsequent adventures in the UK.
    If you enjoy a book which is full of detail, even though it may
    appear rather complicated at times, then take off your shoes and go barefoot with the author as he tells his tale!

    • Clarissa,

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I actually didn’t know – or, if I was informed, didn’t recall – that it was the first in a series. But I don’t think that would change significantly what I’ve said about the book. I think it stands on its own, and I certainly hope that nothing I’ve written puts anyone off reading it if they’re so inclined. I actually am not turned off by detail; quite the opposite, I like losing myself in the world the writer creates. Even with that, as a reviewer, I’ve got to say what I think works and what doesn’t. So, I try to be honest about how I respond to the book and to be fair in my assessment (taking the book’s strengths and weaknesses as I see them into account), but in the end it is subjective and everyone won’t agree. As a writer, I’m very sensitive to that because I’ve been on the other end and will be again, I’m sure, and believe in being constructive (it’s one of the reasons why the blogger on books section of this site features books I’d recommend and not every book I’ve read).

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