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Biography & Autobiography Women

From Harvey River

A Memoir of My Mother and Her People

by (author) Lorna Goodison

McClelland & Stewart
Initial publish date
Jan 2009
Women, Cultural Heritage, Historical
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Jan 2009
    List Price

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“Throughout her life my mother, Doris, lived in two places at once: Kingston, Jamaica, where she raised a family of nine children, and Harvey River, in the parish of Hanover, where she was born and grew up.”

When Doris Harvey’s English grandfather, William Harvey, discovers a clearing at the end of a path cut by the feet of those running from slavery, he gives his name to what will become his family’s home for generations. For Doris, Harvey River is the place she always called home, the place where she was one of the “fabulous Harvey girls,” and where the rich local bounty of Lucea yams, pimentos, and mangoes went hand in hand with the Victorian niceties of her parents’ house. It is a place she will return to in dreams when her fortunes change, years later, and she and her husband, Marcus Goodison, relocate to “hard life” Kingston and encounter the harsh realities of urban living in close quarters.

In Lorna Goodison’s spellbinding memoir of her forebears, we meet a cast of wonderfully drawn characters, including George O’Brian Wilson, the Irish patriarch of the family who married a Guinea woman after coming to Jamaica in the mid-1800s; Doris’s parents, Margaret and David, childhood sweethearts who became the first family of Harvey River; and their eight children, Cleodine, straight-backed and imperious; serious Albertha, called “Miss Jo” because she was missing all sense of joviality; beautiful Howard, who dies an early death; Rose, whose loveliness inspires devotion but whose own heart is never fulfilled; taxi-man Edmund, who yearns for the freedoms of the big city; Flavius, who spends his life searching for the true church of God; large-hearted, practical-minded Doris, whose bottomless cooking pot often feeds more than just her family; and vivacious, hard-headed Ann, whose gift of reading hair tells her the future.

In lush, vivid prose, textured with the cadences of Creole speech, Lorna Goodison weaves together memory and mythology to create a vivid tapestry. She takes us deep into the heart of a complete world to tell a universal story of family and the ties that bind us to the place we call home.

About the author

Lorna Goodison was born in Jamaica in 1947. She has published several collections of poetry, including Tamarind Season (1980), I am Becoming My Mother (1986), Heartease (1989), To Us All Flowers Are Roses and Selected Poems. She has been writer in residence at the University of the West Indies, Jamaica, and at Radcliffe College, Cambridge, MA. She currently divides her time between Michigan and Jamaica. Her volume of short stories, Baby Mother and the King of Swords, was published in 1990.

Lorna Goodison's profile page


  • Short-listed, Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction
  • Short-listed, Trillium Book Award

Excerpt: From Harvey River: A Memoir of My Mother and Her People (by (author) Lorna Goodison)

Part One
The baby was plump and pretty as a ripe ox-­heart tomato. Her mother, Margaret Wilson Harvey, gently squeezed the soft cheeks to open the tiny mouth and rubbed her little finger, which had been dipped in sugar, back and forth, over and under the small tongue to anoint the child with the gift of sweet speech. “Her name is Doris,” she said to her husband, David.

In later years, my mother preferred to spell her name Dorice, although in actual fact she was christened Doris. But she was registered under a different name altogether — Clarabelle. This came about because of a disagreement between her parents as to what they should call their seventh child. Her father, David, was a romantic and a dreamer, a man who loved music and books, and an avid reader of lesser known nineteenth-­century authors. He had read a story in which the heroine was called Clarabelle, and he found it to be a lovely and fitting name. He told his wife, Margaret, that that was to be the baby girl’s name. Well, Margaret had her heart set on Doris, because it was the name of a school friend of hers, a real person, not some made-­up somebody who lived in a book. Doris Louise, that was what the child would be called. They argued over it and after a while it became clear that Margaret was not going to let David best her this time. He had given their other children names like Cleodine, Albertha, Edmund, and Flavius. Lofty-­sounding names which were rapidly hacked down to size by the blunt tongues of Hanover people. Cleo, Berta, Eddie, and Flavy. That was what remained of those names when Hanover people were finished with them. Margaret had managed to name her first-­born son Howard, and her father had named Rose. Simple names for real people.

There was nobody who could be as stubborn and hard-­headed as Margaret when she set her mind to something. She was determined that her baby was not going to be called Clarabelle. “Sound like a blasted cow name,” she said. David gave up arguing with his wife about the business of naming the pretty-­faced, chubby little girl, especially after Margaret reminded him graphically of who exactly had endured the necessary hard and bloody labour to bring the child into the world. He dutifully accompanied her to church and christened the baby Doris, on the last Sunday in June 1910. Then the next day he rode into the town of Lucea and registered the child as Clarabelle Louise Harvey, and he never told anyone about this deed for fifteen years. As a matter of fact, he is not known to have ever told anyone about it, because the family only found this out when my mother tried to sit for her first Jamaica Local Exams, for which she needed her birth certificate. When she went to the Registrar of Births and Deaths, they told her that there was no Doris Louise Harvey on record, but that there was a Clarabelle Louise Harvey born to David and Margaret Harvey, née Wilson, of Harvey River, Hanover. She burst into tears when she heard what her legal name was. “Clarabelle go to hell” her brothers chanted when the terrible truth was revealed. Not one to take teasing lightly, she told them to go to hell their damn selves.

Eventually her name was converted by deed poll to Doris. Thereafter, she signed her name Dorice, as if to distance her­self from the whole Clarabelle/Doris business. Besides, Dorice, pronounced “Do-­reese,” conjured up images of a woman who was not ordinary; and to be ordinary, according to my mother’s oldest sister, Cleodine, was just about the worst thing that a member of the Harvey family could be.

Cleodine was definitely not ordinary. She held the distinction of being the first child to be born alive to her parents, David and Margaret Harvey. She emerged into the world on January 6, 1896, as a tall, slender baby with a curious yellowish-­alabaster complexion. The child Cleodine immediately opened her mouth and bellowed so loudly that the midwife nearly dropped her. Before her, not one of the five children conceived by Margaret had emerged from her body alive. Every one had turned back, manifesting themselves only as wrenching cramps, clotted blood, and deep disappointment.

This time around, her husband, David, had watched and prayed anxiously as Margaret’s belly grew big with their sixth conception. Would this baby be the one to make it? Would it be the one to beat the curse of Margaret’s seemingly inhospitable womb? The doctor had ordered her to bed the day it was confirmed that she was again pregnant, and once this happened, her mother, Leanna, had announced that she intended to mount upon her grey mule and gallop over to Harvey River each morning to take care of her daughter. Leanna forced her to lie still for most of the nine months, forbidding her to go outside, even to use the pit latrine. Instead she made her use a large porcelain chamber pot which she herself emptied. She bathed her daughter like a baby each morning and combed her long hair into two plaits, pinning them across her head in a coronet. She prepared nourishing invalid food and fed her steamed egg custards and cornmeal porridge boiled for hours into creaminess and sweetened with rich cow’s milk. She made her thyme-­fragrant pumpkin soup and fresh carrot juice, because Margaret’s cravings were all for golden-­coloured foods, which she ate sitting up in her big four-­poster mahogany marriage bed. Another reason for feeding her these soft foods was that Margaret had become afraid that any abrupt, jarring movement might dislodge the foetus. She chewed upon these soft foods slowly and gently, and later, to occupy herself she sat propped up in bed quietly stitching and embroidering every imaginable type of garment, except for baby clothes.

Editorial Reviews

“In Lorna Goodison’s brilliant memoir, she has ‘taken back her language’ from the clichés and drowsy characterizations of a country and its people. The language and love with which she describes Harvey River and Jamaica have left my senses planted firmly in the sweet mud of an island that becomes a world. Like the clean and cleansing waters of the Harvey River, Goodison’s poetic language washes over us, elevating her observations of place and people to the realm of a masterpiece.”
—Austin Clarke

“This literary memoir glows with the lyricism that has made the author one of the leading poets of the Caribbean region. . . . Awash with history, Jamaican culture, folklore and dialect. . . . A lovingly crafted record of a family, told with honesty, humour and beautiful prose.”
Winnipeg Free Press

“Compelling. . . . From Harvey River is a poet’s memoir in the best sense, catching moments, moods and flavours with vivid imagery. . . . Goodison is not inventing here so much as remembering, and her telling of these memories is moving and lyrical. . . . Her story unfolds as life itself unfolds: nudged forward by impersonal events and personal choices, defined by pivotal scenes but couched in the daily and the ordinary.”
National Post

“Goodison understands that life struggles are inevitably and inveterately struggles of history as well as struggles of language to memorialize everyday or extraordinary realities and dreams. Her memoir is saturated with the sense of ordinary lives going on, of things unfolding as they would, and of plain old history infiltrating or poking through family history.”
Globe and Mail

“So exquisite it stands as an example of the possibilities of the form. . . . A feat of history, imagination and artistic achievement. . . . [It] is a sumptuous montage of landscapes, portraits and anecdotes. . . . Goodison’s voice, her tone and choice of language, brilliantly reflects the mingling of African and British culture. . . .”
Toronto Star

“Lorna Goodison takes readers down memory lane as she weaves tales of fact and fiction. . . . This genealogy is written in a voice that I am sure most would love to give to long-lost relatives. . . . From Harvey River will bring to mind [Jamaica’s] colourful recipes, local idioms and history.”
—Montreal Gazette

“A lyrical, luscious book, From Harvey River is not just the story of a family and a village, it is a passport to an island where the plaiting lineages of a footloose world come home. Shaped with intoxicating grace and clarity, these characters will move right in and take up permanent residence in your heart.”
—Merilyn Simonds

“Lorna Goodison’s language pours forth like Miles Davis, singing up the members of her family like one psychic organism but autonomous and singular. No one who reads From Harvey River will see Jamaica the same way again.” 
—Jan Sharp

“With her poet’s magic, Lorna Goodison has recaptured the history of her large family – its highs and lows, loves and losses, stories and songs – stretching back into Jamaica’s past to the last days of slavery. A spellbinding and deeply moving tale.”
—Natalie Zemon Davis

“Steeped in local lore and spiced with infectious dialect and ditties, Goodison’s memoir reaches back over generations to evoke the mythic power of childhood, the magnetic tug of home and the friction between desire and duty that gives life its unexpected jolts.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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