Thursday, January 14, 2010

Everything I know about Haiti I learned from Jennifer Green

Well, OK. Not everything. I have actually read a bit, watched documentaries, and met some folks during my off-the-beaten-resort-path Caribbean travels. But the first person to teach me about Haiti was definitely Jennifer Green. Who on earth is Jennifer Green, you ask? Excellent question. Jennifer Green is the main character/narrator of a series of intermediate fiction books by Jane Sorenson that, I'm not going to lie, kind of border on the insipid. But I absolutely ate these books UP when I was an adolescent. I made my mom read them, too, an act for which she may have yet to forgive me, even though I wised up and have been giving her good stuff to read ever since.

So anyway, this series, "The Jennifer Books" as they were known - my, how original - consisted of twelve books in which our hero, Jennifer Green, moves from Chicago to Philadelphia, makes new friends, learns lessons, attends junior high, becomes a Christian ... wait, what? Yes, it's true. They were totally Christianed out, these books. They might even be categorized as intermediate Christian fiction, if there is such a genre. We are talking hardcore: the gimmick is that Jennifer is talking to the Lord. Seriously. Each chapter starts, "Lord, it's me Jennifer" and then she tells the Lord all about her day, the bus stop, homeroom, the winter carnival committee, the youth group hayride, horseback riding lessons (she get her own horse in book #7, Fifteen Hands), and so on. Just in case the reader should forget she is talking to the Lord, Jennifer interjects little Lord-asides every so often, such as when trying to figure out which of her two neighbor boys she likes, or when her dad is laid off, or upon finding out her friend's mom is an alcoholic, or some other crisis looms. "You have a plan, Lord, don't You?" she'll say.

Not only do I really think I may be the only person on the planet to have ever bought these books (and my mom and sister may be the only other two to have ever read them, because I forced them to), but isn't it kind of funny that I of all people in fact read them? I adored them, though. I wrote letters to the author, too, and she answered. I even argued religion with her. Damn, I was a freaky 12-year-old.

So anyway, Haiti. Book #8 is In Another Land. Jennifer Green's beloved grandma lives in Florida; she's a widow since Jennifer's grandpa died in book #4 (Jennifer Says Goodbye). Grandma sponsors a child in Haiti (so 1980s, these books) and as she is preparing for a long-planned trip to Haiti along with her retired friend who also sponsors a child, suddenly the retired friend can't go for some reason. So Grandma invites Jennifer to go. Jennifer's little brothers (Pete and Justin) are initially jealous, but of course the family all has a learning, growing experience because of Jennifer's trip. Before Jennifer goes, they each learn a fact about Haiti and share it at dinner -- clever way to teach the young reader a thing or two, no? -- and after Jennifer's trip she is inspired to sponsor a child of her own. And on an 8th-grade income! What a good Christian soul.

No but seriously - here's the thing. I learned so much about Haiti! Almost the entire book, minus the cheesy family togetherness scene around the Haiti encyclopedia entry at the beginning, is the chronicle of Grandma and Jennifer's trip. Obviously the author Jane Sorenson had been there. Port-au-Prince, the landscape, the lifestyle, the Creole language, the food, the bumpy roads, the children she meets, the no-see-um bugs, the nice tourist hotel versus the ramshackle citizen dwellings, the utter friendliness of the Haitian people, and so on. It was pretty much the first travelogue I ever read, even though it was a random Christian-fiction intermediate novel travelogue.

In fact, when I went to Cuba a few years later, on our initial drive into Havana from the airport, I immediately started thinking about Jennifer Green In Another Land. It resonated a few times during my Cuba trips, although I daresay Cuba isn't nearly as poor and politically ravaged as Haiti. But even apart from Cuba, I always sort of forget that almost no one else--OK, no one else--has these same "memories" associated with Haiti as I do, that not everyone has such vivid pictures and anecdotes and life lessons immediately spring to mind when Haiti is mentioned.

I'm reasonably certain the Jennifer Green books are out of print, but hey, that's why God made, Abebooks, and Alibris. If you are looking for a quick Haiti primer that you can read in, honestly, probably one hour, or if you just want to try to figure out how I could possibly have been sucked in to twelve books - TWELVE - narrated by a wide-eyed, born-again 8th grader, then hie thee to one of those used book sites and plunk down a dollar for ol' Jennifer Green. I am fascinated to find myself saying this, but I really think I recommend In Another Land! The rest of the series, I'm not so sure...although it is exciting when Jennifer starts to fall for Matthew Harrington....or when she gets her colors done...and we can't forget the petition for Heidi Stoltzfus to be winter carnival queen...oh dear...OK, I take back the almost-insipid comment. Just thinking about Jennifer Green has been like reuniting with an old friend.

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