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“Listen. So the little boy goes over and picks up one of the starfish and puts it in the sea. But there are thousands of them and the father says to the boy, Son, you’re not going to be able to help all of them. You’re not going to be able to make a difference. So the little boy picks up another starfish and puts it in the sea. He says to his father, I made a difference to that one…”
Dog-Heart is a profoundly moving story of the ghetto and a middle-class woman’s effort to make a difference to one family. Sahara Lawrence is the voice of reason and caring in a world of indifference to the poor Jacob’s Pen. The story is brilliantly told from two alternating points of view – her own in an ‘uptown’ voice and Raymond Dexter Morrison’s in the voice of the inner city. They sometimes overlap; sometimes display their different origins and world views. This gripping narrative is woven with insight into the unspeakable at the heart of darkness. In the words of Annie Paul: “The expendability of life in the ghetto and the perpetual injustice meted out to its inhabitants by the state and so-called civil society lie at the heart of this tale of postcolonial darkness.” McCaulay tells her tale with stringent accuracy. It resonates with fear and courage, bringing understanding to the enthralled reader. Once you have read Dog-Heart you will look at Kingston’s young beggars with different eyes.
“Is a whole set of things Miss Sahara don’t know. Like, every ghetto chile go shop from them young – them all can make change. Them can add and subtract in them head, but when them go school, most of them don’t know how to take the number out a them head and put it on paper. She don’t know we don’t have book, well, maybe a romance book or a religious track, but no book-book, like library. She don’t know about bus, about big boy inna the community, she don’t know how teacher shame us, she don’t know how it dangerous to live in Jacob’s pen.”
The struggle for education forms a nucleus of the narrative. Sahara Lawrence attempts to school Dexter and his brother Marlon. She brings bags of groceries to their mother Arleen every Sunday night. She drives her yellow VW into the inner city and visits with Arleen’s children, always sympathetic, always caring. And yet her effort is doomed to failure. This is the journey that McCaulay examines in fine detail in this superb novel.
Set in present-day Jamaica, the novel deals seriously with issues of race and class, the complexity of relationships between people of very different backgrounds, and the difficulties of seeking to bring about social change by individual action. Dexter reflects on the worldview of the inner-city inhabitant:
This is what everybody inna ghetto know: if anybody want kill you, white man, big man, policeman, area don, schoolmate, politician, shotta, anybody – them will just do it. Nobody can stop them and after, nobody will care. You can think man who do murder will be arrest and put in jail and you, the person who is dead, will be in heaven lookin down on them in jail with a whole heap a batty man, but that is not how it will go. Man will kill you like a cockroach for reason no bigger than a domino game and that is the end – the end of everything.
The people in Jacob’s Pen call a boy like Dexter’s friend Lasco Dog-heart. It means Evil. His life’s trajectory is also set to follow a negative path:
Bad thing-them will happen to him, already happen to him. Him will rob and rape and murder, and other people will try to kill him too. Him could end up a area don, rich, drivin a Escalade, wearin cargo, people lovin him, but him will still die young and there will be a big funeral and politicians will come…Lasco born to dead.
McCaulay holds up a mirror to the ghetto people, the police, the educators, the middle classes – no one escapes her careful analysis in this ambitious work. Her writing soars and draws in the reader who is caught between the two voices, seeing the need of the ghetto youth and understanding Sahara’s dilemma in treating the family with fairness and generosity.
Dexter, too, is caught between the desire to do well in his new prep school and the demands and exigencies of the ghetto world. He ruminates on the school issue:
Most day I hate being at prep school, with the slow children. But then some day, when I sit in a quiet classroom with Miss Gordon, and she explainin something to me alone, something I never did understand before, I feel like I can see over a giant concrete wall. When I learn something, I think about that wall fallin down, erodin like Miss Blagrove tell us in Science. And I see it in Marlon too – him begin to read fast-fast, as if him cannot get enough a reading. Teacher not the problem at Holborn Prep – them voice quiet, them don’t beat we. Children a the problem.
Sahara Lawrence is a single mother who is sending her son Carl to college in Florida. She undertakes the support of Arleen’s family on impulse after she meets Dexter begging one evening in Sovereign Plaza. Her friend Lydia, who runs an ital restaurant, is leery of this project, as well she might be. Sahara follows her heart to Jacob’s pen, feeding the family and caring for them, until Dexter is grown and ready for high school. Then he is also ready to live like a man and free himself of his mother and Sahara. Dexter starts to hang out with other boys who are trying to win a place in the gang of Merciless, the area don. He is set the task of committing a crime to earn respect. The irony of the crime is that it involves kidnapping a white woman and holding her for ransom in a downtown building. He and his gang capture Sahara, but Dexter cannot see her injured and he turns on his mates. Sahara is saved but Dexter’s family is decimated by the police. When asked why he did the crime, Dexter responds:
Why?’Cause what else there is for mi to do, Miss Sahara? ‘Cause mi tired a bein Big Foot, tired a borin schoolroom and bwoy and teacher disrespectin me. ‘Cause what all the schoolin you t’ink so important going to bring me? Nutt’n, Miss Sahara, nutt’n, you hear? Schoolin going bring me labourer job at construction site. Maybe mi could wash big man car, maybe if mi lucky-lucky, get a job as a security, and is mi gunman shoot after at night. You know what badman and gun give mi? Respect, Miss Sahara. Respect mi couldna get no other way.”
The narrative is tight and well thought-out. McCaulay has done a superb job of pacing the text and underscoring ironies, and of feeding explanations into the storyline as necessary. This is a beautifully told tale as well as gripping one. Dog-Heart may become a text that is studied in Caribbean schools for its great empathy and literary acumen.
Diana McCaulay is a Jamaican writer, newspaper columnist and environmental activist. She has had many positions in the island and is presently the Chief Executive of the Jamaican Environment Trust. Her 15 years of leadership within the environmental conservation movement of Jamaica has been rewarded with the 2005 Euan P. McFarlane Award for Outstanding Environmental Leadership. In 2009, she was awarded a Musgrave Medal for Merit from the Institute of Jamaica. She has made a film, Jamaica for Sale, with Esther Figueroa. Dog-Heart is her first novel. It won a gold medal in the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission’s 2008 Creative Writing Competition.
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