In his book about growing up in Barbados, Cecil Foster amply vindicates his brother's admonition, delivered as he left for Canada in 1979: "You will do well in Canada... All I ask is that you always remain humble and have humility, let us always remember where the three o' we came from."
In the early fifties, Cecil had been left behind in Barbados with his two brothers in the care of their paternal grandmother. Their mother, Dee, had gone to England to join up with their father. This decision meant the permanent estrangement of the boys from Dee's family and a festering resentment that marked their youth.
Foster's record of daily life with Grandmother Goddard, who struggled to keep them all clothed and fed, is engrossing. They lived in a chattel, or board-and-shingle house, with a galvanized sheet of metal for a roof. It was built to be taken down and moved within a day-a necessity since she could be ordered off the land immediately by the owners, the local cane-producers, should she fall behind in her rent.
When times were good and money had arrived from England, Grandmother might cook fish cakes or cou-cou, the Barbadian national dish of boiled cornmeal, okra, and peas. Then the whole family would sit around a pine-scented fire while Grandmother, enthroned on her special flat stone, wove tales of their family history and glowing dream-tales of their bright future with their parents in England.
The reader is always acutely aware that this English future was a bright but doomed dream, for Foster tells his story in retrospect, and it has a constant subtext of loss and regret. His telling, however, is remarkably without sentimentality or self-pity, and its warmth is all the more persuasive for that.
The boys were "barrel children", eagerly awaiting the next parcel sent from overseas by stranger-parents. "For my brothers and I, effectively part of the first post-colonial generation, our cherished dream was to join our parents in this far-off land. This was our escape, but ever so slowly reality was forcing us to search for other options". Parcels from England eventually ceased, as did remittances: "with time it became very clear that the only possibility of my making anything of myself would depend on what I could achieve in high school in Barbados".
Barbados' birth as its own nation took place in November 1966: "we had started out on the same road as such great nations as India, Ghana, Kenya, and closer to home, our three neighbors in the Caribbean....The flag also had special domestic significance. It signalled a new beginning and limitless potential. Our pride was in keeping the world's newest flag afloat". As a young, impressionable teenager, Cecil became a devoted, idealistic nationalist, and briefly, an intensely political young man. To his great advantage, he got a job as a cub reporter at Reuters news agency. He had found his true calling.
From this point on, Foster's reminiscences are both hurried and multitudinous, enough for at least another volume. His adventure with Maurice Bishop and the deadly politics of Grenada is rushed, as is his poignant trip to England to see his mother and father, now divorced. This episode is unbearably sad, which is perhaps why Foster rushes through it. What happened to both parents and children paints a vivid picture of the crumbling of bright dreams of emigration under the reality of a temperament and training totally unequipped for success in an alien climate and culture.
Island Wings leaves a powerful and mixed aftertaste: it is a wonderful celebration of the gallantry, loyalty, and determination of a poor and proud people.
Clara Thomas is Professor of Canadian Literature at York University.