In Beka's mind, of late, a tidal-like wave was always there, and she lived in constant tension between the drawing back of the water, and the violence of its crashing against the shore.
Beka Lamb was written by Zee Edgell and published in 1982. The novel takes place in Belize while the country is in the midst of a cultural and social shift. Edgell peppers the story with breathtaking imagery and colors and offsets them with the cold realities of living in Belize. The two main characters, Beka and Toycie represent the ongoing clash between the old and new ways of life; between what was Belize and what will be Belize. Edgell explores maturity, political, and social issues through the telling of Beka and Toycie's lives.
Beka and Toycie are best friends, classmates, and neighbors. Toycie, seventeen, has a stealthy relationship with a young man of a higher class. Toycie and Beka have both been warned of getting pregnant before graduation. Pregnancy out of wedlock occurs frequently among young girls in Belize. Women are permitted to attend school. However, not only is the cost of education too expensive for many families, but once girls begin school, they face a different set of rules than the boys. Toycie becomes pregnant in the middle of her final year in school. She is expelled and not allowed to return because the school believes, "In cases like this, we believe it is entirely up to the modesty of the girl to prevent these happenings"(Edgell, p119). Emilio, the father of Toycie's child, faces no consequences. He is not expelled from school. He will receive the education his wealthy family pays for, and when he graduates, a job that will allow him the freedoms that Toycie had anticipated. The money Toycie's aunt had struggled to save to pay for her education was wasted. Toycie will follow in the footsteps of the women before her, like her aunt, Miss Eila, whom Beka's father said, "is a simple woman, like many of our women, in certain matters,"(Edgell, p. 120). Miss Eila lacks the means to provide adequately for herself and her family. Toycie will raise a child and struggle everyday to somehow earn a living. Early pregnancy contributes to the limited roles available to women. It begets a social cycle that girls like Beka must learn to swim against.
The majority of the characters in Beka Lamb are female. The story is told from a woman's perspective. Beka's mother stays home with the family. Beka and Toycie go to an all girls Catholic school where they are taught by nuns. The lack of male characters stands out enough to know that the omission was intentional. The story illustrates the reality of the Belize culture. Male characters work or become educated while the women maintain the homes and earn what income they can. In the novel, the few male characters have at least one fault that turns the reader away. Emilio impregnates Toycie, but then will not marry her. Bill fails to show consistent affection to his family; he often seems uninterested or too busy. The women who surround Beka influence her thinking and judgments. Interestingly, the women are politically well-informed. One would not expect the "simple" women to have interest in politics. While Beka respects her father, she does so partially out of fear and partially because she is supposed to. Beka's respect for Granny is different. Granny knows more about life and about Belize than either Beka or her father. Beka's ability to recognize this demonstrates not only Beka's maturity, but also her curiosity about and reverence toward the Belize culture.
The Lamb family is the only nuclear family on their block. Beka's father, Bill, has a white collar job in a country where traditionally men have held blue collar jobs. Beka's mother, Lilla wants the family to adopt Western ways and forget the old ways. On several occasions she tells Beka's Granny to stop telling Beka about "before time". In the novel, much of the history of Belize comes from stories Beka recalls Granny telling. Bill and Gran Ivy sit on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Bill is looking to the future; he is ready for change. Gran Ivy goes to political rallies and wants to preserve the country's past. Beka lives in a politically and socially divided home. Her maturity allows her to ask questions so she can form her own opinions.
Beka's life changes with Toycie's pregnancy. Until Toycie became pregnant, Beka had lived a safe, predictable life. She had chores and she had arguments with her family, but Beka had not experienced life. Toycie's situation forced Beka to face bureaucracy, isolation, and death. Beka returns to school after Toycie's expulsion and wins an essay contest. The self-doubts Beka faced her whole life start to recede. The pedestal Toycie once stood upon is now vacant. Beka has not replaced Toycie, but has begun to change what she sees on that pedestal.
The most touching part of the story is Beka's growth and maturity. She begins as a fourteen year old girl who idolizes her older friend. At the end of the story she has become more focused, mature, and aware. Beka privately mourns for Toycie because she feels no one else has mourned for her appropriately. As a freshman, Beka wins an essay contest that she thought she had no chance of winning. By winning the contest, Beka realizes that change is possible. She will not be stuck in the same poverty stricken cycle that Toycie fell victim to, but she will never forget the culture that molded her into the person she will become.
1. Edgell, Zee. Beka Lamb. Heinemann Educational Publishers. Jordan Hill, Oxford. 1982.