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A Revolution for the Present Day: Girlcott by Florenz Webbe Maxwell

Florenze Webbe Maxwell bring history to life with Girlcott

The year is 1959 and Desma Johnson is eight days away from her sixteenth birthday. When disaster strikes in the form of a cinema boycott, Desma must try to make sense of the rapidly changing world around her and find her place in it before she is swept away by the tides of history. Set in segregated Bermuda, Girlcott tells the story of one determined girl who is forced to learn that the world isn’t nearly as peaceful as it appears.

Girlcott won a 2016 Burt Award for Caribbean Literature for its fictional account of the 1959 Theatre Boycott in the small island of Bermuda. As a novel whose inciting event is real rather than invented, Girlcott has the unique position of being entertaining as well as educational. Maxwell has taken a factual record of history and breathed fresh life into it by allowing the reader to experience the unfamiliar time and place through the relatable eyes of a teenage girl.

Just a small town girl, Desma has some pretty big dreams for a coloured girl in the fifties: she plans to go to college and become an actuary. Her brilliance at Math earns her a full scholarship for school, and all seems to be in her favour until an activist body called the Progressive Group plans a boycott that stirs up trouble in the small island. Desma has to quickly transition from being a teenager concerned about her birthday party into a world citizen concerned about the rights of other people just like her. She is exposed to the uglier side of neighbours she once thought friendly, and she learns that it is always important to fight (peacefully) for what you believe in.

It is engaging to watch Desma mature as a character through the pages. She starts off as a typical teenager, annoyed and disappointed that the boycott has ruined her birthday. Though at first she struggles to set it right in a way that is most convenient to her, she eventually learns that some things are bigger than birthdays, and bigger than any one person.

Maxwell must be commended for the historical realism she brings to the story, with details of racist Bermuda that helped to build a solid argument for the end of segregation. Episodes of racism common to the fifties like mortgage manipulation and plural voting are explained without being heavy-handed and help to ground the reader in the era being explored. We cannot help but side with Desma and her family, turning our noses up at the manipulative and vindictive treatment doled out by their white counterparts.

Girlcott presents the reader with a brave and intelligent heroine who has worked hard for her achievements and who fights back when her accomplishments are threatened. This kind of heroine is an inspiration. Even when Desma gets tongue-tied in the face of authority or gets stage fright when she has to face a crowd, she still holds fast to her own truth and speaks up when it counts. Maxwell also makes a statement by having a girl protagonist be gifted in Math, a subject area all too often neglected by the fairer sex. Unusually, Desma finds it easier to express herself in mathematical equations, turning a problem over in her mind until the variables click into place and it is solved. In fact, Desma interprets the entire world through mathematical eyes: a tilt of the head becomes an acute angle; a furrowed brow becomes parallel lines. Even toward the end of the novel when the girl behind girlcott is triumphant, her placard displays not prose but an Einsteinian equation for dismantling segregation.

Yet Girlcott is not without its faults. There are times when Maxwell falters in convincing the reader that the narrative voice is that of a young girl. Understandably, dialogue was more formal in the fifties, but at times the conversations appear stilted and unnatural. The pacing of the novel is also somewhat uneven, with the action being sped up in the last few chapters. But Maxwell does not seem concerned with pace, content to tell the story on island time, thoroughly exploring the vices and vagaries of her characters’ extended lives. Indeed, she paints a multi-dimensional portrait, weaving past and present tightly as if to prove to her readers that on the cusp of national upheaval, history is just as integral to change as the here and now.

As a writer, retired librarian and storyteller in her native country of Bermuda and as a member of the clandestine Progressive Group, Florenz Webbe Maxwell is uniquely poised to tell the story of this little-known Caribbean revolution. By drawing on her knowledge of Bermuda’s history and cultural idiosyncrasies she has delivered a manuscript that both teaches and inspires, and which will continue to do so well into the future.

Title: Girlcott

Author: Florenz Webbe Maxwell

Publisher: Blouse and Skirt Books, 180pp.