A Review of W. H. Harrison’s Fire Maria, ISBN 9781543158786 , 392 pages, 2017 (available from Amazon).
Reviewed by H. Nigel Thomas
William Harrison’s Fire Maria: Memories of My Grandmother takes us back in time to Ive Walk, a hamlet located within a few miles of Ocho Rios, Jamaica. As the title states, the focal character of the narrative is the grandmother Fire Maria, so named by the villagers because of her character. But equally important is the narrator-author. Contained within the narrative are his coming-of-age story and his grandmother’s role in the process. The characters’ self-reliance and adjustment to their environment constitute the dominant ethos of this work.
The book depicts a time when material resources were few for most rural dwellers. Children made their own toys and concocted their own entertainment. William makes knives from the metal ribs of his grandmother’s corset and catapults from the leather of what he mistakenly believes are his grandmother’s discarded shoes.
There’s no electricity in Ive Walk, but Maria has a collection of oil lamps—beautiful, ornate ones for the main house, crude, robust ones for the outside. On her one-acre plot she cultivates all the valuable fruit trees and the vegetables that provide food and income. This plot too, along with roadside weeds, allows her and William to raise goats.
The memoir is skillfully written. The language is at times lyrical and cinematic in its vivid detail. The story is structured like a chain, each link being an interesting story. The stories build to create a picture of Maria as a generous, intelligent, understanding, communally-minded woman with excellent parental skills. Even so she remains somewhat mysterious.
Fire Maria is a delightful and informative read. To West Indians and others who are now raised in nuclear families, Fire Maria offers an instructive portrait of a time when grandparents played a seminal role in the raising of children. Every West Indian and anyone wishing to learn about the rural Caribbean at mid-twentieth century should read this book.
Mr. Harrison is a graduate of Mico College and McGill University and a retired school principal. He was very active in the Montreal Association of Black Business Persons and Professionals. He lives in Saint Bruno. Fire Maria will be launched on Saturday October 14, 2017, 5:30-7:30 pm, at the UNIA Hall 2741 Notre-Dame West, Montreal, Qc H3J 1N9. Everyone is invited.