Red Jacket

By Pamela Mordecai

Red Jacket
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2015 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize 2015 — Short-listed

As she comes into adulthood, Grace confronts the mystery of her own identity and the story of her birth mother in this sprawling, large-hearted novel.

Growing up on the Caribbean island of St. Chris, Grace Carpenter ... Read more


Overview

2015 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize 2015 — Short-listed

As she comes into adulthood, Grace confronts the mystery of her own identity and the story of her birth mother in this sprawling, large-hearted novel.

Growing up on the Caribbean island of St. Chris, Grace Carpenter never feels like she really belongs. Although her large, extended family is black, she is a redibo. Her skin is copper-coloured, her hair is red, and her eyes are grey. A neighbour taunts her, calling her “a little red jacket,” but the reason for the insult is never explained. Only much later does Grace learn the story of her birth mother and decipher the mystery surrounding her true identity.

“A compelling tale of faith and family, ranging from the dusty landscapes of West Africa to the rich flavours of the Caribbean. ” — WILL FERGUSON, Giller Prize–winning author of 419

Pamela Mordecai

Pamela Mordecai was born in Jamaica. She has published five collections of poetry and an anthology of short fiction. She has also written many textbooks and edited or co-edited groundbreaking anthologies of Caribbean writing. Her poetry for children is widely anthologized. Her poems have been shortlisted for the Canada Writes CBC Poetry Prize and the Bridport Prize (U.K.). She is the recipient of the Institute of Jamaica’s Centenary and Bronze Musgrave Medals, the Vic Reid Award for Children’s Writing, and the Burla Award. Pamela lives in Kitchener.

First chapter

1 A Girl Child in Wentley Plantation 
 Like all children of decent parents in the village, Grace raise in the church. King James Version of the Holy Bible is the first book she ever see, the one book they read every day. Come evening, in their two-room barracks hut, they partake of whatever repast the Lord provide. After that, Ma, Pa, Gramps and the lot of them listen to the Word, first as read by a grown up, next as reread by one of the children that is sufficiently book-learned to cipher it out. At just past five years of age, Grace can unscramble the longest words, measuring the ancient Hebrew names like shak-shak music on her tongue. “Then Nebuchadnezzar said, ‘Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who has sent his angel and rescued his servants!’ ” Grace pause and look around to collect the gentle encouraging nods of Ma, Pa, and Gramps, then she resume. “ ‘They trusted in him and defied the king’s command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God. ’ ” She lift up her eyes again, shut the Holy Book solemnly, and declare, “Here endeth this evening’s reading. ”“Amen, Alleluia. Praise the Most High. ” So say Gramps. “For the Lord defendeth his people and will not see his faithful children to perish into neither pit, nor jail, nor trap set by the unrighteous defenders of Babylon who shall be cast out. Alleluia! Praise his Holy Name. ”Long life, white rum, and years of singing in the gospel choir give Gramps voice a deep, sweet sound. Sometimes, if rum recently oil Gramps throat, and he making argument on matters political or spiritual, that voice pour out like waters rushing on the river bottom over a million pebbles and make Grace shiver deep in her deepest insides. Gramps is forever talking about pit and jail and trap. She wonder who ever put Gramps into a pit or a jail, a tall, strong man like him. She never consider a trap, for Gramps is a smart-smart man, and, so far as Grace could see, no trap in all the world clever enough to catch him. Gramps slap his hands on his knees after this proclamation and ease himself from his chair, and that is the sign that prayers is over and every man jack to bed. Bed is two coir mattresses shove together that Ma take time and extend as more and more children come. She cut down the side and sew on the extra ticking, and then she stuff in more coir and sew it up again. So the two mattresses now filling up most of the little space they calling a bedroom. Lumpy is true, but better than sleeping on the tough wood floor, and the sheets are spanking clean and no bug inside the mattresses to bite for they go out in the yard regular to get fierce beating and fiercer sun. “All of you children finish homework?” That is Pa, every night. “Yes, sir,” say all but the littlest two who are sleeping already, Sammy on Ma’s lap and Princess, sucking her finger, propped up on cushions, head at rest on the table. “Going to put Simple Bible on that girl finger, make her stop sucking it,” Ma say, “or her mouth going to mash. ”“No such thing as Simple Bible, Gwen,” Gramps say. “How much time I tell you the thing name sempervivum? From Latin. Mean the plant always alive, hard to dead. ”Ma make a long kiss-teeth, and say to Gramps, “Mr. Carpenter, is nough things I got to member in the language I know. So forgive me if my recollection don’t stretch to take in a next one. ”Gramps shake his head, answer her with a suck-teeth of his own. “I look on the homework. Edgar and Stewie and the girls finish their assignment good enough, but Conrad like he need to settle down with them times tables. He know to do the sum, but he can’t get the answer for he don’t know the tables, and teacher say, do the sum, but don’t look on the tables. ”“Don’t know how that make sense,” Pa observe. “How he can know to do the sum if he don’t know the tables? And how he to learn the tables if he don’t look on them?”Pa don’t say all that much, but he is kind to them. With his good left hand, he pat each one on the head, from Pansy, the biggest, right down, and say every night, “God bless, sleep tight, and bite back any bedbug that bite you,” He don’t use the right hand so much, for the top two joints of the first two fingers are gone long ago, chop off by the teeth of a old threshing machine, and the third finger is almost all gone. When each child reach the stage of touching his hand, asking for the lost bits, Pa just shrug. “Like the Holy Bible say, good thing come from bad, least that’s the way it is for all who fear the Lord. ” He wiggle the stumps, and whoever is sitting on his lap, laugh. “When the machine chop off my finger, boss man look quick for something my brain could do, for he don’t want to pay me the severance pay, and that is how I get the work I do today. You mark my words: Is a ill wind indeed that blow no good. ”25 March 1965 Dear little daughter,Today you turn five year old so you are a big girl now. Happy birtday!!! I hope you do something special today not so much ice cream and cake but maybe go to the river or the sea or the big waterfalls in Martin’s Bay. I remember a little one on the river that run through Grannie Vads place. It drop in a pool deep so my foot never reach bottom in some place. Grandpa Mali try show me how to swim in that pool but I never learn good. I hope you get to know how to swim. I am learning now that I am a big somebody. I think is better you learn when you are little for I don’t too love put my head in the cold water I go to YWCA pool with all girls here. I will tell you when I can swim down the pool me one. Your birthday cheer me up for right now the world come like a sad place I don’t know what wrong with black people why they always turning on each other. Last month a man name Mr Malcolm X get kill by his own people some saying he was a troublemaker but if we kill everybody that make trouble then half of we who in the world wood be dead. This month some people was marching into a place name Selma with a man name Mr. King and police mash up the march and treat the people like animal beat them up and put them in jail. I glad you growing in a country where everybody look like you. Plenty of our people is here in New York. At my school is eight of us from West indies I am the oldest one so they say I am dear mother. I tell them no is only one child I have and is you. Your loving mother, Phyllis“Well, it’s never stung me,” Gramps say the day Grace ask him about the pretty purple-blue bubble lying on the sand at Richfield. It was the first day she put her eyes on so much water, big shining acres of it that blind her eyes as the truck emerge round a corner from the dark of the forest. “However, I know plenty people who it sting and make well-sick,” Gramps continue. He sound serious, like parson at a funeral. Gramps words taking their time to make meaning in her head, and as he talk, her hand is moving down to touch the shiny mauvish skin. “Stop, Gracie. Don’t touch that!” Gramps say, sharp like flint, and he walk over and scoop her up from the sand and hoist her round his neck, so she is a princess save by a prince who snatch her from danger and settle her high on his horse. Of course, Gramps is the prince and also the horse, and she laugh at that, but not so soft that Gramps don’t hear her, never mind the waves bashing the rocks. “It’s not a laughing matter, Gracie. ” “Sorry, Gramps. ” She is a bit annoyed that Gramps stop her from just slightly touching the bladder, which is all she want to do. “Gramps, I wasn’t going hurt it,” she explain. “Only just pat it a little. ”“I want you to learn a lesson, Gracie. Two lessons. First, I would never stand in the way of your having any experience or testing out anything for yourself. Understand?” He is balancing on some crusty rocks, rough white stones that poke into the raging sea as if they daring it to lash them some more. Grace is thinking about his bare feet and wondering if the points in the rocks not hurting them. She know he waiting for an answer because he tilt his head up towards her, so she oblige. “Yes, Gramps. ”“That is how you will learn new things, and learning and growing as a person are what you are here for. Correct?”She nod with plenty ups and downs. “Second I want you to look good at that bubble. It is called a Portuguese man o’ war. It is as deadly as it is pretty, meaning that if you get stung by one of those trailing tails, it could kill you. ” Which is how the question about the stinging come up, to which Gramps reply that jellyfish never yet sting him. “You know anybody it kill, Gramps?” “Well, if you must have an answer, yes, I do, Gracie. It was long ago, and I don’t like to recall it. ”He look so sad, she never ask him any more about it. Instead she turn her attention again to the sea, green-blue and then darker blue and darker, curving out like a hip until it meet the sky. Sitting up on his shoulders, she feel in charge of sea and sky and wind and all. She like that. With she and Gramps, no bad things would happen. Ever. She close her eyes and behold the bright redness in the dark behind her lids. In a flash she dream a whole, entire dream. She see a big baby fish — not any ordinary baby fish, but a good-size baby manatee like they learn about in school with a cat face and fine whiskers — that is swimming in warm blue water clear as glass beside a big-big mother fish. They are dancing, twirling round and round, sometimes standing on their tails, and sometimes just lying back with their heads above the water. Then in a flash the water is dark and cold, and the little fish is alone, head twisting side to side searching for the big fish who is gone, just so!She open her eyes. Though the dream is flown away quick as it come, she is glad to find warm air all around her. They stay on the beach until midday, waiting for Lemuel. He is Gramps longtime friend. They pass by his house in the morning when they just reach to Richfield, and his wife say he and his sons gone fishing from before daybreak, not coming back till noontime. So Gracie and Gramps are waiting. Gramps let her play in the water and build things out of sand and stones. The sand is a sort of rusty colour, not like the sand the big trucks haul in to build cement houses for the office workers at Wentley Park. Those houses are a long way down the road from the barracks huts where the Carpenters live. Gramps tell Pa that since he move up in the job, he should tell backra he need a better house. Pa tell Gramps, “Remember, Pops. The higher monkey climb, the more him expose!” The two of them laugh a big laugh. Ma just listen and smile. Gramps and Gracie see boats come in, watch the fishermen haul in their nets, and sort the catch. They choose some to take with them and sell and throw the others back into the sea. It seem to her that many of them are dead and so can’t swim away but Gramps explain that other fish will eat them, so they won’t go to waste. Grace gaze at the sea for a long time. Far out on the horizon she make out a ship, and she run to Gramps to point out how it is getting bigger. He start to explain about the roundness of the earth. “I know Gramps. We learn it at school. That’s why Columbus never fall off. ”“Maybe it would be better if he did fall off. ” “But if he never come, we wouldn’t be here. ”“True. But we were fine where we were. And it was evil to put us in chains and treat us like animals. ” Grace has heard Gramps on this subject before. “No sense crying over spilt milk, Gramps. ” Whole morning she watch for ships heaving into view from nowhere or slipping away over the edge of the world. Someday she will go too. Someday she will have business to take her to places far from St. Chris. Midday arrive. Lemuel still don’t come back. At half-past twelve Delroy, the man that give them the ride from Wentley Park, come to collect them, and they climb aboard the back of his truck. Gracie have something for everybody: shells, bits of coral, pretty stones, and jewels that are really pieces of deep green, dark blue, and orange glass bottle that the sea smooth over. She have hats for Sammy, Princess, Pansy, and Pa that she make out of coconut leaves, for Gramps show her how. The shells, stones, jewels, and coral are for Stewie and Edgar and Conrad, and there is a conch shell, deep pink inside, for Ma. Gracie know the Maroons still blow the conch shell, and also the cow horn they call abeng, to send messages, and that long ago, Arawak people used to send messages by blowing the conch shell too. As they leave the beach, she beg Gramps to blow the shell through a hole in the top so it make a sound. Gramps take a deep breath, put the shell to his lips, and blow. The sound is low, thick and steady, not like any horn she know. She want to learn to blow the shell, so all the way home, she puff and puff into it, but all she hear is the phoo-phoo of her own breath. “Gracie,” Gramps eventually say, “give it a break and try again later. You will do better. No use puffing and blowing when your lungs are tired. ” She put the shell one side like Gramps say. Early the next morning Gramps leave the barracks house to find her sitting on the big boulder at the back of the yard, hard at work trying to make the shell sound. “Any better luck?” he ask as he approach, same time searching the sky as he do every morning for signs of the day’s weather. She nod, put the shell to her lips and produce a faint, dithery sound. “Good for you, Gracie! I am going to crown you Miss Determination! You keep trying, and it soon going be loud enough to call the clans together. ”“What’s the clans, Gramps? Why we calling it together?” So Gramps sit beside her on the stone and tell her about Scottish clans and African kinship groups, and how families can stretch across the world, and how one time, in the army in England, he meet a man who look so much like him they could be brothers, except the man was fair. “You know what we discovered, Gracie?”“That your grandpa was brother to his grandpa?”“Exactly right, but for a generation. His great-grandpa and my great-grandpa were half-brothers. Can you believe that?”Gracie grin, nod, and then she ask, “So a bit of you is white then, Gramps?” “I suppose so, Gracie. In this country, chances are a little bit of almost everybody is white. ” He look at her for a moment. “Why? Does it matter?”She shake her head to say no, and right away feel bad because she know it is a lie, a big lie. But if a little bit of Gramps is white, then perhaps she don’t need to feel bad about the fact that she don’t look so black. Maybe the colour you are is just a matter of luck. Maybe there is lots of black in her that don’t manage to find its way out. Maybe, if she ever have a son, he will be a proper black man, dark as Gramps and Pa. 25 March 1966My dear little daughter, Happy birthday! Today you are six years old! You must be going to school now maybe even big school. I wish I could see you in your uniform with a red ribbon in your hair and your school bag and lunch pan. I am so proud of you. I know you are going to be a good girl and learn as much as you can for sure I am praying for that. I have some news. Your Grandma Daphne my real mother is getting married next month and it is a big thing so she don’t have time to think of much more than that. The man has four children and two are small ten and eight years. We don’t meet them yet but she say soon. Once she is married she going to live with the whole of them in New Jersey for those children need her. That will leave just me and Granny Evadne. Granny Vads, for is so we call her is mother to Daphne and Granny to me. I am trusting God that we will able to manage. I am sixteen years old now and working at school to make a little money. I help all around sometimes in the kitchen sometimes in the office sometimes to make the new girls feel confortable. Sister Agnes say if I work hard maybe there is a job for me. I will wait on the Lord and see how things turn out. Lucille Gray who live here with Daphne a long time is still boarding so we make someting from that and Daphne say she will help us. I think her husband have money. They drive a big new car and he have his own house. At least that is what Daphne say. I have some other news for you. Last time I say I would tell you when I can swim all the way down the swimming pool by myself. Well I can do that now. I remember how I was so scared when I start. Maybe if you can not swim yet one day I can teach you. Sister say take a interest in what going on in the world so here is the news. Things still don’t go so good here in this America. Last year August they have a big palampam in a place name Wats in California. Plenty people die and get injure because police beat up two black fellows bad bad and people get vex and make a riot. I don’t know why these police think they can carry on so. I send you all my love. Your loving mother, Phyllis P. S. There was a big outage here in November last year. Imagine, no light anyhere in this big New York City. I have to laugh because they are so boasy saying those things happen only to poor countries. But it happen here for true.

Awards

  • Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize 2015, Short-listed

Reviews

Red Jacket is successful in that it holds the reader's attention from start to finish and invites us to reflect on many issues that assail us. It is a significant fictional accomplishment.

A rich and compelling tale about the agony of being made to feel different and the elusiveness of belonging.

For those attuned to a Caribbean literary tradition and to women’s writing in particular, the echoes of Paule Marshall’s Daughters, Merle Hodge’s Crick Crack and even Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea will most certainly be heard in Mordecai’s book.

…Red Jacket is an accomplished, intelligent novel…to be savoured for its multiple layers of meaning and—especially—its richness of language.

For those attuned to a Caribbean literary tradition and women’s writing in particular, the echoes of Paule Marshall’s Daughters, Merle Hodge’s Crick Crack, Monkey, and even Jean Rhys’s Wild Sargasso Sea will most certainly be heard in Mordecai’s latest work.

A compelling tale of faith and family, ranging from the dusty landscapes of West Africa to the rich flavours of the Caribbean. Pamela Mordecai has made the transition from poetry to prose with an enviable ease.

Canadian poet Pamela Mordecai’s first novel moves from the warmth of the Caribbean to the chill of Canada and then to the deserts of West Africa. Fans of Caribbean literature and readers who enjoy sagas of misfortune may find this book captivating.

If there is a smelting room of the English language, if there is an iron table where syntax and breath are shone, here is where Pam Mordecai works her glittering materials.

Pamela Mordecai is a fearsomely ingenious writer, whose ear for language is equalled by her huge heart’s humanity.

Alternately heart-wrenching, clever and very real, this novel tackles issues that are relevant on both a personal and global level.  

This exceptional story of one woman's education, career, and motherhood . .. Grace's story of a rise from humble beginnings may feel familiar, but Mordecai never allows it to become cliched.

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