*as published in the Daily Observer on January 29th 2013
By Joanne C. Hillhouse
I just closed the book on Barbara Arrindell’s The Legend of Bat’s Cave and other Antiguan Stories: a new collection which could be a good fit as a Reader for mid to late primary school students in Antigua and Barbuda. I’m not an educator or reading specialist so I may have that totally wrong. And, as I’m currently in the midst of working with an editor to tailor a story of mine for the children’s market for a pending collection, I’m all too aware that nits could be picked about choice of words. I mean, who knew there was so much involved in making a story age appropriate? Plus, given that Arrindell’s collection consists of essentially historical pieces, one or two anachronisms jumped out at me while reading, though clearly they didn’t ruin the overall effect as I can’t remember what they are now. But what I think makes The Legend of Bat’s Cave a good fit for that middle primary age group is that its stories are complex and interesting enough and the vocabulary advanced enough to hold the attention of and challenge them, I think, without losing them. Plus, given our limited awareness of our own history, anecdotal or otherwise, this collection fits into that void. These stories are all based solidly in some part of Antiguan and Barbudan history, and Arrindell clearly mines that history but also leaves herself room to invent. Through research and imagination, she’s able to provide details meant to transport the reader to the stink and dankness of the bat cave, the utter ruin of post quake St. Johns, and the freedom of Saturday afternoons on horseback.
I found the last story, the most domestic of the stories, dealing with a mother’s death and its impact on her family, to be, strangely enough, the most interesting of the three. This story, Chasing Horses, love that title, is also included in the new anthology of Antiguan and Barbudan writing, So the Nailhead Bend So the Story End, edited by Althea Prince. I did wonder, what it might have sounded like from a single perspective like the story of the Governor’s wife kidnapped by the Kalinago and then exiled by her husband or the progressive Bishop trying to build a church community in a socially and racially divided island, instead of shifting from point of view to point of view. I enjoyed and empathized with the other children’s voices, yes. But, as the reader I was particularly interested in how Irene, the oldest daughter whose life was most transformed by her mother’s death, was processing the changes in her life. I felt that sticking with her perspective could have sharpened the thematic focus with respect to what it was like for girls then when it came to the intersection of family obligation and personal ambition.
That said I like both the collection and this story in particular overall, and particularly appreciated the scene setting in that latter story. Some nit picking again re flow, but the rustic and carefree world of the children is rendered with sufficient detail that you feel the shift in that world when it comes. And whereas the first story sometimes rushes through the emotional impact of the changes in the character’s life and the second story, given its span, sometimes feels more like the summary of a life, by focusing on a single incident and its effect on a family, the last story felt more grounded and the world more fleshed in. Arrindell accomplishes a lot in this tight, little, reader-friendly, child-friendly collection and fills a particular niche: a niche once filled by moonlight tales that once upon a time handed down the social history and mythology of Antigua and Barbuda then and by so doing added nuance and meaning to Antigua and Barbuda now.
Disclaimer: I call this a semi-review because we live in a small incestuous society especially those of us in the literary world. I’m actually working with the writer right now, a partner in the Wadadli Pen project (https://wadadlipen.wordpress.com). So, clearly, there’s conflict of interest. But as always I tried to give my honest assessment. To be fair though, perhaps best to read it for yourself and form your own opinion.
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