This lyrical book tells the story of a girl and her grandma, Ti Gran, fixing a stew called Freedom Soup. This dish is commonly eaten in Haitian households at celebrations for the New Year to commemorate the end of slavery. Ti-Gran tells Belle that slaves had to make the soup for their masters, but never got to eat it themselves until they were free. As the author explains in a note at the end of the story:
“My husband’s late grandmother, Ti Gran, gave me my first bowl of Freedom Soup, also known as Soup Joumou. As soon as I tasted it, I knew there had to be a story behind the flavors of pride, victory, and joy. Ti Gran was a feisty yet gentle soul who taught me the history of the soup.”
The text mostly focuses on Ti Gran and her granddaughter Belle preparing the soup, emphasizing the savoriness of the soup and the sweetness of freedom.
As they cook, Ti Gran explains how the people in Haiti were slaves until they were liberated by a revolution. Belle can visualize the history from Ti Gran’s descriptions:
“I see the colors of freedom: the tan streets of Port-au-Prince, covered in broken black chains, kettles of hot yellow soup, a sweet pumpkiny-garlic aroma filling the air.
I see Ti Gran’s people. My people.
Eating soup to celebrate the end of slavery.
Eating soup to celebrate the start of freedom.”
The story ends in a riot of color as the whole extended family comes over to share Freedom Soup, and talk, sing, and dance. Belle is proud that she helped prepare the meal, and that it turned out so well:
“We share stories of Ti Gran’s faraway island, and taste freedom again . . . and again . . . and again . . . ”
A recipe for the soup is included at the back of the book.
Illustrator Jacqueline Alcántara uses lush colors and fluid lines to depict cooking, dancing, fighting against slavery, and celebrating freedom.
Readers in the recommended age group of 5-9 won’t learn how or why slavery was imposed on Haiti, nor by whom, unless an adult fills them in; background is provided in the Author’s Note. The Note is written in a way that will be understandable to a young audience if adults care to share its contents. But even without the history of Haiti, the message that freedom is never “free” comes through loud and clear in the story.
Evaluation: It is commendable that children will learn from this book a glimmering of a counter-narrative to the usual Christopher Columbus story. In fact, when Columbus and his men came to Haiti and the nearby islands of the Caribbean they instituted astoundingly vicious policies. As an article from the Harvard Magazine “The Crimson” recounts:
“By 1515, on Hispaniola alone, war and slavery had killed 200,000 Arawaks, or 80 percent of the original population, by conservative estimates. Eventually, all of the natives were wiped out. Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison has written that the ‘cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide.’”
[Hispaniola is one of the Caribbean islands where Columbus made landfall when he “discovered” America. Today it is divided into two separate, sovereign nations, the Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic to the east and French / Haitian Creole-speaking Haiti to the west.]
Following the near decimation of the indigenous people from forced labor, disease, suicide, and war, the Spanish, under advisement of the Catholic priest Bartolomeu de las Casas and with the blessing of the Catholic Church, began importing Africans as slaves. During the French colonial period beginning in 1625, the economy of Haiti (then known as Saint-Domingue) was also based on slavery, and the practice there was regarded as the most brutal in the world.
Though this story focuses on family bonds and celebratory traditions of Afro-Caribbean culture, children of other backgrounds may be curious enough to inquire about the history of Haiti and its sad legacy. Regardless, it will be hard for non-Afro-Caribbean readers to resist sharing Belle’s joy and enthusiasm as she participates in this ritual. Readers can be prompted to compare her celebration to other holidays they know about, and will realize how similar all of them are in many ways, but with different spices and stories flavoring the festivities. One hopes this will lead readers to an appreciation for the richness and diversity of America as a nation of immigrants. We have so much to gain by focusing on what we share and how much we can learn from each other, rather than being fearful of any differences.
Published by Candlewick Press, 2019