As many Canadian children were being told fairy tales of mystic lands where houses were made of candy cane and gingerbread, where glass slippers and a mere kiss could turn girls into royalty, the magical tales told to a young Cecil Foster were about joining his parents in the Land of Plenty: “We would sit around the fire with Grandmother enthroned on the big rock, her dress or skirt lapped between our legs, while she told us stories. She taught us about our family history and painted glowing pictures for Stephen, Errol and me about the great life awaiting us, when we joined our parents in England.” This is the story Foster tells in Island Wings: A Memoir.
A journalist who’s worked with the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, CTV and CBC, Foster is probably better known for his novels such as No Man in the House and Sleep On, Beloved. Island Wings follows Foster’s awarding-winning A Place Called Heaven: The Meaning of Being Black in Canada. Wings is set in Barbados, the place where Foster’s “navel string is buried,” and is an attempt by Foster to come to terms with tangled relationships, principally with his parents and his homeland, both of which are so inextricably linked.
The book begins when Foster’s parents leave him and his two older brothers on the island and head off for the mother-isle of England: “My mother cried that day on the Bridgetown Wharf as she walked off, leaving her three sons: Stephen, Errol and me, still a baby. My brothers tell me they didn’t cry, but how could they not? If they didn’t maybe it was because they had fallen victim to the pressure of never openly showing emotion.”
The quote seems significant considering that the book’s primary weakness is its own reluctance to fully open up. As a result, Foster fails to engage the reader in his journey of disappointments and success. The writing is often bland and too much like straight journalism, lacking the fancifulness and use of metaphor that make for effective fictional writing. Granted, this is not a work of fiction, but memory is seldom pure fact. And seasoning the facts with some subjective descriptions would have enlivened these memories.
Yet Wings does raise some interesting questions such as: How do three little boys have such a distant relationship with two people whose intimacy created them and why do people who come from paradise (the island of Barbados frequently being an ideal vacationing spot for Canadians) want to leave? To his credit, Foster gives some answers. His story is one that is linked to those of many Caribbean Canadians who left what most Canadians see as paradise. In some ways Foster’s story portrays the complex and dueling relationships between home, cultural identity and necessity – a reality well-known to many immigrants, not solely those from the Caribbean. Still, the best thing I can say of this book is that it’s a good effort, one that may be a stepping-stone to more potent memoirs by Caribbean Canadians.
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