Things really can happen out of the blue, can’t they. I mean, literally out of the clear, innocent blue of a September morning in New York City, when planes appear. Flying much too low.
This novel for young adults does not begin with the 9/11 attacks. It begins with a storm over the Caribbean Sea. The gathering clouds bring fear and despair for Doña Maria, who lives in a green house by the sea in the Dominican Republic. The sea’s moods are important, however, for her twelve-year-old niece Elizabeth; she welcomes them all, because she believes, very strongly, that she is a mermaid: “You know who and what you are, no matter what anyone else says.” Elizabeth is what you might call “fey” – otherworldly, tuned in on a different wavelength. She looks for fallen stars and gathers “moonbeams” for a necklace to give her mother. Mostly, she expresses her feelings lightly, in lyrical phrases like “Our horses are dancing in the rain” (hence, the book’s title). Her friend Brandt says she often sounds like a poem.
Elizabeth’s voice is well balanced by that of Brandt, a New York boy with a Dominican mother. They meet (almost magically, to Elizabeth) one moonlit night. He interrupts her declaration to the moon itself (yes, I told you; Elizabeth is fey). Brandt, on the other hand, has a cheerful, down to earth disposition, and wisdom beyond his eight years. His older brother Jared is sensitive and introverted (perhaps somewhere on the autism spectrum). We get to know him too, through his gestures and glances and his typical brothers’ conversations with Brandt, about Gameboys and the like. If you had a young son at that time, you will remember Gameboys. Elizabeth and Brandt are the alternating narrators throughout. I don’t particularly care for the term “coming of age story”; but the narrators, in particular, come to learn and understand a great deal more about their families, and themselves, as the story progresses.
The story is filled with light and color. The glittering sea in the Dominican Republic is mirrored in the sparkle of the Hudson River, which Brandt observes from the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center with its gleaming tables. There are candles to be blown out, to make a wish on. There is moonlight, starlight – and the strange light that occasionally seems to shine between Jared and his family.
And color? One skips right through the book, appearing and disappearing: the color yellow. During the opening storm by the sea, a yellow butterfly flits inside the house. As a storm approaches the World Trade Center, a yellow balloon floats. Elizabeth wears a “stiff-as-a-pin” yellow dress to meet her beloved Papí at the airport. She drops her yellow orange juice in distress on the day he leaves. It seeps into the wooden slats of the floor. Incidentally, this is one of the many vivid details in the book that describe the Dominican environment, lifestyle and culture: craft vendors at the beach, domino players, and the history of the red cliff, El Mirador, which is Elizabeth’s favorite daydreaming spot.
The lively airport scene where Elizabeth wears her yellow dress is well depicted, with a few swift brush strokes: Dominican families, women and children waiting for the sight of a father, or son, or boyfriend, returning from New York. Women waiting for men. The novel gently underlines the strength of family. This is expressed in warm embraces, half-hidden gestures, bursts of anger, tears dripping onto Elizabeth’s father’s shoes, small jealousies – and laughter. Brandt talks about family with his mother’s friend Alex (“a girl with a boy’s name”). She offers him a new perspective: “You have your family you’re born into and the tribe you create yourself.”
One question that seems to come up in young adults’ novels quite often is this: What exactly does one do with the adults? Of course, they usually move the story along; without them, very little would happen. Yet, they must be more than two-dimensional figures that simply propel action. In this novel, the adults are often unfathomable to the children. Their behavior is unpredictable. They are annoying, sometimes embarrassing. The writer manages to imbue the grownups with life, however, by observing them through the children’s eyes. This works really well in the last chapter, which builds beautifully as Brandt observes the adults’ interactions with gentle amusement (it really is hard to believe he is only eight years old).
A story inspired by 9/11 – and its aftermath – cannot help but be sad. Most 9/11 stories, whether real or imagined (and this one could easily be real) are also personal; they pierce your heart. It is not an easy task to create a narrative that does not descend into the morbid and the mawkish. The writer largely avoids this trap, however. She does not skate around the visceral reactions of those affected by the 9/11 attacks (every character in the story is affected in some way, so one must describe their reactions). She illustrates the confusion and agony of those terrible days, for example, by listing the mother’s phone messages, which she writes down in chronological order. The boys’ grandfather, Señor Oscar Hess, a German Jew who fled to the Dominican Republic during World War II, tells the children his own tragic family history. It may seem just a little too much hardship and pain, but it teaches the children a valuable lesson – a lesson for adults, too – about hope, love, and responsibility for those you love. “You can’t make anyone happy…They have to be happy by themselves,” as Jared put it.
So, why the points of yellow, flickering and splashing here and there throughout the story? Yellow is a beautiful and at the same time a heartbreaking color. It’s bright, fresh, optimistic. It’s the color of sunlight. It’s a favorite Caribbean color, especially juxtaposed with blue (in this story, the blue of the sea and sky, which blur into a “vanishing point.”) However, yellow is also the color associated with longing and uncertainty. It is about waiting for a loved one to come home – the ribbon that is tied in the hair, or around the trunk of a tree.
We know that sometimes the loved one does not come home. But we know, also, that hope and renewal are possible. Elizabeth’s uncle tells her: “Everyone has hope, mi amor.”
So the horses dance in the rain, and as Brandt observes, “Still, there is joy.”
Dancing in the Rain is the third place winner of a Burt Award for Caribbean Literature prize, which was awarded at the 2015 Bocas Literary Festival in Trinidad by the Canadian educational organization CODE. The book is due to be published on July 15, 2016 by Blouse and Skirt Books, an imprint of Blue Moon Publishing. Lynn Joseph is the author of a number of children’s books, including A Wave in Her Pocket (1991), Coconut Kind of Day: Island Poems (1992), The Mermaid’s Twin Sister: More Stories from Trinidad (1994), Jasmine’s Parlour Day (1994), An Island Christmas (1996), Fly, Bessie, Fly (1998), Jump Up Time: A Trinidad Carnival Story (1998), The Color of My Words (2001). Ms. Joseph was born in Trinidad; she now lives in Long Beach, New York – near the sea.