March 7, 2012

Book Review: Island Princess in Brooklyn

As parents, we struggle to instill values in our children that are important to us. We often turn to books as a means of continuing our conversation about values, which we believe will enable them to become successful members of our community. But what happens when a child is uprooted and placed in an unfamiliar setting? What values will they discard or retain? This is the predicament of Princess McQueen in Island Princess in Brooklyn by Diane Browne.

Written in the first-person, Island Princess begins in medias res with Princess McQueen at the JFK terminal. From the opening sentence, we get a glimpse of the estrangement between Princess and her mother: "Would my mother be there? This thought kept bouncing around in my brain like an echo in a cave, over and over again, even though I tried to keep it away" (1). This uneasy prologue is just the start of Princess's yearlong sojourn in Brooklyn where she attempts to reconcile the American Dream with the real issues of trying to fit in to a new neighborhood and school.

Although Princess has difficulty in adapting to a new neighborhood, nothing has prepared her for her schoolyard in Brooklyn where she must reconcile the hard earned wisdom of her grandmother with whom she spent her formative years as one of the many "barrel children" in Jamaica, and the everyday rough and tumble of school in America. Yet, this precocious "Island Princess" as she is called by her classmates, soon makes friends with other children from different ethnic backgrounds: Latoya (African American), Esperanza (Hispanic), Simply Red (Caucasian) and Chunkie Bear (Biracial).

As she learns to negotiate the racial and social differences in the schoolyard, Princess's knowledge comes with a price. Princess is forced to balance her commitment to speaking the truth against loyalty to her friends when her friend Chunkie Bear is tripped while walking across the yard. She must also weigh the value of honesty that she has learned from her grandmother against her mother's practical advice of remaining neutral, "No interfering in what don't concern you. For the last time I am telling you, you are a migrant and a foreigner! Story end right now!" (85).

Her mother's advice, punctuated with the colloquial, "Story end right now!"—a sure sign that their discussion had come to an end--is only one of the many charms of Island Princess in Brooklyn. Throughout the book, Diane Browne conveys the confusion in Princess's mind as copes with the changes that accompany displacement. Princess's bewilderment is captured in her description of the subway:

It was a scary underground place of sudden flashing lights: sometimes narrow, with walls close on either side, looking damp; or wide, where other passing trains rocked thundering by, windows alight, slipping by one after the other, with disappearing ghostly figures inside, all caught up in the wind and noise. The subway was like a large underground nest of moving metal minsters. (38)

In this midst of this turmoil, Princess yearns for the security of home in Jamaica even as she tries to heal the relationship with her mother. Princess makes lists of the things she misses in Jamaica, but as another of her friends, Jamal, reminds her, "your mind is always on what's missing, not what is nice about being here?" (156)

It's those snippets of wisdom from the conflicts between the characters and the realistic treatment of Princess's dilemma that make Island Princess a delightful read. Island Princess in Brooklyn is a welcome addition to the conversation within the diaspora about communal values values and the problems our children face while growing ups as "strangers in a strange land."



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