Beyond the brief recorded comments of her sons, Wilfred and Malcolm, what was known about Louise Little was minimal: she was born in Grenada in 1895 or the beginning of 1896. She migrated to Canada at the age of 21 in 1917, and then moved to the USA, became involved in Garveyite Black political struggle, bore eight children, including Malcolm X, suffered a mental collapse and was incarcerated in a Kalamazoo Mental Hospital for decades until released at her family’s behest in 1963. Thereafter, she lived quietly with family members in Grand Rapids, Michigan until her death in 1991.
It is within the spaces of the brief comments of Wilfred Little and Malcolm X about their mother that Merle Collins creates her work of fiction. She seizes on a crucial clue about the shaping of Louise Little’s inner world from their reference to her frequent quotation from the standard texts of Caribbean colonial education: The Royal Readers. In seizing on this clue, Merle Collins not only finds the space to bring to fictive life this brave woman, but to write a richly textured and insightful account of the making of the very best of the generation who led the fight against colonialism. Merle Collins dramatizes the process of how they took control of their colonial schooling by learning to read for themselves and use the decoding skills to be found embedded in the Royal Readers’ texts to turn its imperialist ideology on its head. There’s a brilliant scene, for instance, when Oseyan (Louise’s family name in the novel) performs, in front of her classmates, a speech by Lord Chatham bewailing the decision of the British government to let loose the “savagery” of Native North Americans on fellow white British colonials in the American war of independence. From it, Oseyan learns how to build a powerful argument but also, because one of her teachers is part Carib, sees the argument’s racist premise. In her portrayal of Louise Little’s life in Grenada at the turn of the 20th century (then still a trilingual country where people spoke both English and French Creoles), Merle Collins writes in a way that both makes you smile for the sage wit of people like Oseyan’s grandmother and feel a lump in your throat for the pain of people whose elders still remembered being torn from Africa.
In later parts of the book, Merle Collins explores Louise’s experiences as a migrant, as a mother harassed by the Klan, as a woman who could “pass” because her mother had been raped by a “reprobate” white man (with all the consequent difficulty of dealing with other Black people’s ambivalent attitudes to her shade of skin); and as a woman who has to deal with the misogyny of her husband, who treats her like a comrade in the public struggle but a servant at home to be cuffed if she questions his commands, and then his sudden death in what she cannot believe was an accident. In the last section of the novel, in the Kalamazoo Hospital, Merle Collins turns to poetry to convey the interplay of memory, isolation, and moments of clarity and confusion in Louise Langdon Little’s mind.