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Books in Brief: Hold Tight Don’t Let Go; Sophia: Princess, Suffragettte, Revolutionary

YOUNG ADULT

Hold Tight Don’t Let Go, a novel of Haiti by Laura Rose Wagner; Abrams/Amulet Books, 250 pages ($17.95) Ages 14 and up.

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Five years after Haiti suffered a devastating earthquake, debut novelist Laura Rose Wagner (who was in Port au Prince doing research when the earthquake hit on Jan. 12, 2010) has written a vivid, poignant and ultimately hopeful tale of Haiti, through the eyes of teenage survivor Magdalie. Wagner’s vivid writing, with bits of Creole and French, has a wondrous immediacy from the first sentence in Magdalie’s voice: “When it begins, I am shelling pigeon peas, pwa kongo, into a metal bowl under the coconut tree in Madame Faustin’s garden.” Magdalie has grown up in the care of an aunt she calls Mamman and her cousin Nadine, is close to her as a sister. The earthquake kills Mamman and destroys the house where she served as a live-in servant. The cousins’ world is thrown into chaos. They can’t afford school; they live in a tent city with their uncle, with filthy toilets, scraping for food, for drinking water. Then Nadine leaves for Miami where her father lives, leaving Magdalie behind. Magdalie tries to dream up ways to raise money to join her (plans that go disastrously wrong). Her friendship with a pregnant girl in the camp is a harsh reminder of the fate awaiting desperate girls who have only their bodies to bargain with. Magdalie is full of anger until a visit to a Vodou healer and then a gathering with family in the mountainous countryside show her another possible future. The novel is pitch-perfect up until the rather abrupt final chapter which leaves us wanting to know more. The contrast of American attitudes toward the poor and Haiti’s sense of community will no doubt come as a revelation to American readers. (Wagner includes a short, illuminating history of Haiti at the end.) A portion of the author’s proceeds will go to charities providing education and health care in Haiti.

– Jean Westmoore

NONFICTION

Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary by Anita Anand; Bloomsbury (432 pages, $30)

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Born in England and a favored goddaughter of Queen Victoria, Princess Sophia Duleep Singh was thoroughly British. Yet she was also Indian – her father had signed his kingdom over to the British Empire. and that left Sophia caught between identities, something it would take her half a lifetime to understand.

Once she did, she went from being a self-indulgent socialite to a political activist. In “Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary,” Anita Anand traces the life of the princess, a fascinating small player in revolutionary movements in England and India at the turn of the 20th century.

Sophia was the granddaughter of Maharajah Ranjit Singh, the Sikh leader who united competing regions and religions into one massive kingdom of the Punjab. After a bloody power struggle, his youngest wife and their son briefly held power, but she was imprisoned and, at age 11, the boy signed over the kingdom to Victoria.

Maharajah Duleep Singh converted to Christianity and moved to England in his teens. Duleep Singh did well in England at first, but went through his fortune, indulging in gambling and women.

Duleep Singh had married the sheltered daughter of a German merchant and his Ethiopian slave mistress; she had six children in 10 years. Sophia, born in 1876, was quiet and shy and, like her mother, prone to depression.

This made Victoria all the more fond of her. Sophia was invited to debut at court and after, she embraced the role of socialite.

In 1902, an enormous celebration was planned near Delhi for the coronation of Edward VII, and Sophia and her two sisters made a request for tickets. While it was rejected, they were told they should visit another time, and the three sisters took that as sanction.

Sophia stayed in India nine months, and she would return again and again. The country was a revelation. “Sophia had seen poverty and depravation on a scale that had overwhelmed her,” Anand writes. “Never would she find life as a socialite fulfilling again.”

On her trips to India, Sophia met and aided some of the key players in the fight for self-rule. Meanwhile, back in England, she began doing good, establishing housing for lascars, Indian sailors who were often maltreated. That project taught her that she could use her social connections to raise funds and her social standing to raise awareness, lessons she took to the suffragette fight for women’s right to vote.

Anand has done a yeoman’s job of pulling together Sophia’s fascinating biographical history.

– Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times