Truth in Fiction: Echoes of Haiti in Channer's Golden Shoes

I just re-read Colin Channer's The Girl with the Golden Shoes. I found the story of Estrella more beautiful and more moving than ever. Channer's writing is fluid and hypnotic, and his characters and their landscape are so perfectly rendered and so genuine that I felt as if I were there along with Estrella on her journey to Seville, the capital town of her island. The theme of the novel is universal to humankind -- the struggle for identity and self-determination -- and yet is also very specific to the nature and circumstances of the Caribbean islands with their history of colonial and post-colonial challenges.

What moved me to tears in this second reading was how the fate of Estrella mirrors the fate of Haiti. For many of us, an island setting of tropical lands surrounded by blue sea evokes paradise and ease. But for Estrella and for many Haitians, especially following the devastation of the Jan. 12 earthquake, the island that is their home is a prison of poverty, marked by a failure of governments in the past and by constrained possibilities for the future. Estrella wants to escape the fate mandated by the circumstances of her birth and struggles to overcome the obstacles placed by others on the path towards her self-defined destiny. Haitians also struggle today against terrible odds to create new lives out of the wrecked buildings and bodies left behind by the earthquake. From what I have seen and read, the minds, hearts and souls of the Haitian people remain steady; like Estrella, they may be turned aside by circumstances but they will not be turned away from what they hold true and right.

What Estrella holds true is that she was born for more than the small, isolated community in which she lives. When her grandmother warns her that she will find only death if she goes looking for something beyond what she was born to, Estrella answers, "If I stay here and don't do nothing with myself then that would kill me worse." Having taught herself to read, she yearns to learn more about the world beyond her cove. When an American appears on the beach one day and tells her she can be whatever she wants to be, she knows she wants to be far more than just a fishing girl. The American scuba diver plants the dream and then disappears, leaving her to fend for herself amidst the prejudices of her community and then amidst the harsh outside world into which she is banished. The parallel with Haiti can again be made: The United States policy has been to offer dreams and money, and short-term intervention in times of crisis, but the long-term support needed for education, infrastructure and industrial and environmental planning has not been given, not by the U.S. nor by any other country.

For years NGOs working in Haiti have been working with Haitians to build and provide the necessary educational and environmental frameworks for a better future, but more help is needed and now more than ever. Save the Children, for example, has long-standing programs providing shelter for children, improved schools, health care, nutritional support and education. They are currently working to provide medical care, safe drinking water and other relief following the earthquake

The action in The Girl with the Golden Shoes occurs over just a small period of time, but within that time, much happens. When Estrella begins her journey to Seville she is young, inexperienced and trusting. By the end of the book, she has lost the innocence of her youth. Her determination to fulfill her destiny of a better life, however, is stronger than ever, bolstered by her conviction that she alone -- no one else -- can define her own destiny. She wants a better future not as a gift to be offered by someone else but as her right to determine and achieve. I wish the same for the people of Haiti, that they have a future of open and unfettered possibilities, a future determined by their own hopes and dreams, and not limited by the constraints of poverty, environmental disaster or governmental failure.

This review was cross-posted on