This blog post is about Dominica, a small island in the Caribbean, not to be confused with the Dominican Republic, which shares a larger island in the Caribbean with the country of Haiti. Dominica was a European colony, first governed by France and then by Great Britain, from the late 1600s until 1978, when it gained its independence.
The book I read for this post, The Orchid House, was written by Phyllis Shand Allfrey, whose family had been among the earliest colonizers of Dominica. It’s a semiautobiographical novel about a British family that has lived on the island for generations. The father (The Master) in The Orchid House has returned from World War II with what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. There are three sisters who have all moved away from the island, with the middle sister, Joan, being the one who most closely resembles the author. And there is the sisters’ old nurse, a black woman named Lally, which was also the name of the author’s nurse when she was growing up.
Lally is the narrator of the book, which opens with the mother of the three sisters (Madam) visiting Lally in the one-room house where she has lived since she retired from taking care of the sisters. They share some wine and Madam tells Lally that the sisters are all coming for a visit. Two of the sisters, Stella and Joan, each have a small child who will be coming with them, and Madam asks Lally to come out of retirement to take care of the children while they’re on the island. Lally is fiercely loyal to the family, and we see both their good and bad character traits through her loving eyes.
Both Stella and Joan married men without much money, and the family’s economic situation on the island has deteriorated over the years. The only thing keeping the family afloat is the fact that the youngest of the three sisters, Natalie, married a rich man who died not too long after the wedding. The biggest crisis facing the family is the narcotic cigarettes that the Master has smoked ever since he returned from the war. The rest of the family both hates and fears the man, Mr. Lilipoulala, who sails to the island periodically to bring him his supply of these drugs.
There is also a friend from their childhood, Andrew, who complicates the sisters’ return home. He has developed a life-threatening illness, which means he rarely leaves the house. He lives with and is supported by Cornélie, who is a cousin of the sisters, being the daughter of their womanizing uncle and a black seamstress, who were never married. Each of the sisters spends time with Andrew upon their return to the island, causing a great deal of consternation for Cornélie.
One of the more interesting aspects of this book, from my point of view, is the introduction written by Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, professor of Hispanic studies at Vassar College. This introduction helped provide a context for the novel itself by giving the reader a look into the life of the book’s author. Much like the character of Joan in The Orchid House, Allfrey was a social activist committed to improving the lives of people on the lower end of the economic ladder. While Joan tried to organize the jobless people on the island to fight for unemployment benefits in the novel, Allfrey founded the Dominica Labour Party and became the Minister of Labour and Social Affairs in real life.
All in all, this short novel kept me entertained and provided a unique perspective on a country about which I knew nothing before I embarked on this project.
The author didn’t spend much time talking about food in this book, so I went to the Internet to find a suitable recipe from Dominica. I found one that featured bananas, which were mentioned during a particularly fateful night in the novel’s plot. A storm was pounding the island, and Lally observed that “[m]eanwhile the wind had come up, and I thought me of how next day the banana fields would look like a battlefield of wounded soldiers.”
The recipe I made is for sunny days, not stormy ones. These frozen carob bananas turned out to be one of the best things I’ve made since I started this blog, and they will be a perfect treat to make again during the scorching Sacramento summer. I found the recipe on a website called Caribbean Choice. I couldn’t find the raw carob powder the recipe called for, but I found roasted carob powder, which worked just fine. They were super-easy to make, and I highly recommend them!
There are no projects for Dominica currently listed on GlobalGiving’s website, but it wasn’t hard to find a worthy cause to support on the Internet. Dominica was devastated by Hurricane Maria last September and is still trying to recover. The Dominica Hurricane Relief Fund is collecting donations “to support the people of Dominica with basic materials such as temporary roofing, blankets, and non-perishable food through aid relief. Our goal is alleviating the plight Dominicans who have been left with nothing.” More information about the Dominica Hurricane Relief Fund can be found at https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/dominica-hurricanerelief?ref=pageredirect.
NEXT STOP: DOMINICAN REPUBLIC