Keeper of the Night by Kimberly Willis Holt
Isabel lives on Guam and one night her mother dies. Some say it was peaceful, or so it seemed, but there’s a fact no one seems to talk about–Isabel’s mother killed herself. Things change in the family. Isabel takes care of her younger siblings. Tata doesn’t say much. Olivia wets the bed and has nightmares. Olivia’s brother starts carving up things with knives, himself including.
Meanwhile, Isabel still has to do all the normal things that teenagers do. She has to go to school and make friends and do schoolwork. Her aunt, a local healer, is always there to help her. At one point, Isabel cannot remember her mother. It’s not until her brother ends up in the hospital that Isabel begins to remember a bit. Her mother used to sing. Her mother used to dance. Her mother made of silly songs and made really good food, but her mother became sad and no one knew why.
In the end, Isabel learns that she has to remember her mother, but also have something for herself. She has to be Isabel and not a stand-in for her mother to her younger siblings.
What I liked
Books about the Pacific islands are always interesting. Each island has its own culture. I’ve never been to Guam, but would have liked to have gone. Isabel has to come to terms with the death of her mother, but she also has to come to terms with death and her culture. There are certain things death means for her family and her friends that it may not mean elsewhere. People are still relatively lips-sewed-shut about suicide in Isabel’s life, but she has to talk about it, her brother has to talk about, her family has to talk about it so they can move on.
Stories about mental illness are certainly appreciated. It’s not talked about enough and people still treat it with a stigma.
What I didn’t like
It seems like Isabel’s father let a lot of culture get in the way of taking care of his children after his wife’s death. He leaned on culture more than on taking care of his family. Being a man isn’t always about doing what society sees as manly, it’s about being the person you need to be for those who depend on you. If that is breaking society’s norms of what a man is, then do it.
This was a bittersweet little book about life on a tropical island.
Do you think suicide is stigmatized in some cultures more than others?
How do you think Isabel’s life would have been different had she been from another culture?