Book Review: ‘La Petite Negress’, by Shelaagh Ferrell

et in 1772 and not written in French (although the title may lead some to think so), ‘La Petite Negress’ is not your average story about someone escaping slavery. The entire narrative is written in verse, and although that may sound off putting to some, the author Shelaagh Ferrell, writes the verses with such natural talent and a true feeling for the melody of the language, that already 2 stanzas in, I forgot that it was written in verse and just followed the waves and melody of the lines.

The beautiful use of language is not the only thing I thoroughly enjoyed while reading Shelaagh’s debut work, but her description and creation of the protagonist, La Petite, had me in its spell from the start. She is small, poor, abandoned, with only her brother by her side. Her mother was ripped from Africa by European slavers and she was born on a plantation in Jamaica, and she now suddenly finds herself in cold and grey England. Her difficult circumstances and her obvious vulnerability as a black girl in a white world, however, do not seem to deter her from being feisty and outspoken. Shelaagh gives La Petite her own voice right from the beginning – this amazing little girl is not just talked about, but she has her own voice, and a strong one at that:

‘So mesmerised was he [an Englishman watching La Petite dance] by the girl’s twists and turns

He gives a coin to her brother tells him the terms [he wants her to dance in his pub]

But La Petite on seeing grows extremely cross

‘Now listen Sah who say him ‘ere were boss?’

Stunned –

Her brother pulls her aside

Looks his sister in the eye

Orders her to keep quiet and play dumb’

But of course she does not follow her brother’s orders and defies the white man again in the next stanza. What a courageous girl! Astonishingly, she ends up negotiating with the Englishman, who wants to take her to his pub to dance and entertain the crowds, to bring her brother along and the siblings end up on the pub owner’s carriage and are on their way to London. And so, the scene is set – La Petite is the unmistakable protagonist of this book and we can’t help but like her and her feisty spirit from the beginning, which seems almost too large for her slender body.

The siblings’ arrival in London is followed by a mysterious encounter between a Frenchman and La Petite, from whom she seems to have received her name. Shelaagh manages to pack so much symbolic value into just a few lines, which are at once painful and reminiscent of La Petite’s past and that of the real-life Africans that were brought to the plantations in the Americas. The mysterious Frenchman gives La Petite a small box that contains a piece of chocolate – a sweet treat that gained enormous popularity in Europe and especially in Spain since Columbus’ discovery of the cocoa beans that had been consumed by the natives long before he arrived. This small gift, a piece of chocolate, sets a whole array of images in motion in any readers’ mind who is aware of the history of the slave trade and the ensuing products that left the Americas as a result of slave labour. The slaves in the Americas were forced into backbreaking labour in order to cater to the needs and luxuries of the European masters and the general population – so this piece of chocolate is almost like holding La Petite’s past and that of her ancestors in front of her, reminding her that she may have left the plantation but that it can come back to haunt her any time. In a more contemporary and race-conscious context, a white man gifting chocolate to a black girl obviously entails a whole other array of interpretations, understandings, and imageries. This episode of La Petite receiving a gift sets the tone for the rest of the book’s narrative, which is full of such underlying images that can expand from within themselves because of the clever connections and understandings that are associated with them, and that deeply depend on the knowledge and interpretation of any one reader, thus offering everyone a slightly different understanding of the text; and that is what true poetry is really all about.

Similarly, the inevitable consequences for someone like La Petite, who has no papers, but gets enmeshed in crime and is threatened with deportation, couldn’t be more relevant than nowadays, when ‘papers’  or someone’s immigration status almost immediately determine a person’s treatment in front of the law. ‘With no papers to show she is not set loose / Instead he says, ‘From what I can deduce / She is an illegal Alien and a thief / And as such it is my belief / She should be put in Jail / To wait the next ship to sail / Back to the colonies whence, I suspect, she came / And transport forthwith just the same’; lines like these have such a shockingly contemporary feel to them, so much so that they could have been spoken as a verdict over someone today.

The book continues to take us on the journey through our protagonist’s life and shows us, through her eyes, what it meant to be black and female in Britain in the 18th century. Many of us are aware of what it was like to be black in the Americas, and we tend to have a more romantic notion of Britain as the isle where everyone , upon arrival, became free. Shelaagh’s book, however, shows us the darker sides of being black in Britain as she takes us through the often breathless lines and moments of La Petite’s life, with the language and verses as fast paced as La Petite’s journey and heartbeat.

Shelaagh’s literary debut is beautifully written. It is as relatable as it is empowering, as riveting as it is suspenseful, and it bears within itself the hallmarks of a future classic. I believe that her book would be a great addition to school curricula for its poetic prowess, its engaging storytelling and its historical importance, and it would also make a great addition to anyone’s book shelves young or old.