Book Review: The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste

Posted August 6, 2015 by Renae // 4 Comments

Book Review: The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste

Title: The Jumbies
Author: Tracey Baptiste
Release Date: April 28, 2015
Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers

Summary from Goodreads:

Corinne La Mer isn't afraid of anything. Not scorpions, not the boys who tease her, and certainly not jumbies. They're just tricksters parents make up to frighten their children. Then one night Corinne chases an agouti all the way into the forbidden forest. Those shining yellow eyes that followed her to the edge of the trees, they couldn't belong to a jumbie. Or could they?

When Corinne spots a beautiful stranger speaking to the town witch at the market the next day, she knows something unexpected is about to happen. And when this same beauty, called Severine, turns up at Corinne's house, cooking dinner for Corinne's father, Corinne is sure that danger is in the air. She soon finds out that bewitching her father, Pierre, is only the first step in Severine's plan to claim the entire island for the jumbies. Corinne must call on her courage and her friends and learn to use ancient magic she didn't know she possessed to stop Severine and save her island home.

In this paranormal novel inspired by Caribbean folklore, author Tracey Baptiste (who is originally from Trinidad) offers young readers an alternative to European fairytales about knights and princesses and dragons. Set on an unnamed tropical island, The Jumbies is a story about friendship, monsters, magic, with a side of easily accessible post-colonialist discussion. I definitely enjoyed this novel, though it read a little too young for me (even for a middle grade novel).

The protagonist here is Corinne La Mer, a young girl who lives on the edge of a reportedly haunted forest with her father, a fisherman. Though the La Mers are established members of the community, they are set apart—the reasons for which become clear as The Jumbies progresses. Anyway. As a character, I liked Corinne, though nothing about her really stood out in the long run. There was a simplicity and lack of depth to Baptiste’s storytelling that, while fitting for a younger reader, tended to make The Jumbies less successful from an adult perspective. Some middle grade novels do appeal to wider audiences, and some don’t—both approaches are fine, but obviously I prefer the former.

In any case, I was pleased by the unexpected discussion of colonialism and post-colonialism that made an appearance in The Jumbies. As the reader learns, jumbies (a catch-all term for supernatural creatures) existed on the island prior to European exploration and settlement. Therefore, the “monsters” of the story are essentially indigenous people, while Corinne and her peers are the colonizers. So in the magical turf war that becomes the book’s main conflict, who is in the right?

This is an interesting question, and certainly a subject I didn’t expect to see come up in the novel. Baptiste did a good job in making this particularly thorny debate accessible, and I thought her coverage of both sides’ perspectives war fair, though of course not overly in-depth or nuanced.

More, the magic in The Jumbies, which naturally played a large and important role in the narrative, was also well done. The antagonist in te book is Miss Severine, who in her non-human form is the queen of the island’s jumbies. Severine is wholly evil, with little or no signs of “humanity” displayed in her actions, which is fitting for the intended audience. Against someone as old, powerful, and malicious as Severine, one would think a girl like Corinne would be helpless, but our protagonist discovers she has magic of her own, and new friends by her side.

Like most fairytales, this is a story of good versus evil, though Baptiste’s introduction of post-colonialism adds an unexpected layer of complexity to the plot. Yet overall, The Jumbies is a fairly simple tale, one perfect for late elementary readers. As an adult I enjoyed this unique, Caribbean-inspired story and the new monsters it introduced me to, but it just wasn’t the best ever.

Renae has written book reviews and other miscellany for Respiring Thoughts since 2012. She loves dogs, Mexican food, mountains, Shakespeare, and procrastinating. She's currently working on an undergrad degree in English/Spanish lit in the Midwest. Connect with Renae on Twitter, Goodreads, and Tumblr.

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4 responses to “Book Review: The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste

  1. The second I saw the cover and read the first time of the description, I wanted to pick up this book! I LOVE Caribbean folklore and I really wish it was used more in literature. I’m sad that the voice felt young to you so I’m not sure if I’ll be picking it up.
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    • Renae

      Mmm, yeah—the tone was the most disappointing. I love that some middle grade fiction feels readable even now than I’m an adult, but this book just…did not. I was constantly reminded that this is a children’s book and that I wasn’t the intended audience. Le sigh.

    • Renae

      Read it! It’s definitely a good book, just not one that lets you forget you’re not the intended audience. Which is okay, since it IS middle grade, haha.