Text: Kincaid, Jamaica, Annie John, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1985.
Summary of Chapter Two: The Circling Hand
During school holidays the narrator is allowed to stay in bed late, listening to her father leave for work. He is a carpenter who has made all their furniture. He takes cold water baths believing it helps his back. The narrator sometimes takes special herbal baths with her mother when the obeah women observe signs that other women who were once in love with her father are trying to harm her and her mother. During the holidays from school, the girl follows her mother around, and the mother instructs her on how she does things. The narrator records in great detail her mother's shopping at the market and fixing lunch, as though these are fascinating events. Her mother spends time with her, including her in her activities, and taking great care of her health. The girl listens to her parents talk at lunch and concludes her father is not attractive, but her mother is beautiful.
She tells the mother's history. She has Carib Indian blood and comes from Dominica. At age sixteen, she left Dominica for Antigua on a boat, but because of a hurricane, many were lost at sea. Her mother and her trunk arrived intact. Now, in that same trunk, are all the mementos of her childhood that her mother had saved, including her baby clothes. Her mother tells her stories of her childhood from the objects in the trunk.
This happy time changes when she turns twelve and starts to go through adolescence. The mother suddenly treats her differently, and the girl wishes she could stop growing. Her mother wishes her to become a young lady and sends her to classes to learn manners and piano. The daughter begins to misbehave, and the mother is disgusted with her. At school she finds solace by falling in love with a new friend, Gwen, having given up forever on the reliability of the love of parents.
Commentary on Chapter Two: The Circling Hand
The narrator's mother is part of a circle of obeah women who practice the old African magic. When the signs warrant, such as sickness or dropping things, the mother takes a special herbal bath with her daughter to protect them from black magic. The father had children with other women he did not marry, and supposedly, they would like to harm the narrator and her mother for having the father's favor. The mother has her certain way of doing things, derived from a magic worldview, that the narrator imbibes. She describes how the mother buys fish, cooks, and does laundry, as though she is the queen of her world.
The highlight of this idyllic time with her mother is when the mother cleans house and takes out the trunk containing all the little girl's clothing from birth, handmade by the mother, all her school papers, and photographs of the girl at different ages. The mother tells her stories about herself from these objects and makes the child feel loved and secure. The girl contrasts her good fortune to her father's ill luck in being abandoned by his parents. In her father's case, his grandmother became like his mother, even sleeping in the same bed with him until she died. The narrator's obsession with death in the first chapter is replaced by an obsession with mother love in this chapter. When the natural mother does not do her duty, often there is a secondary or substitute mother, like the father's grandmother. But the girl realizes a substitute is not the same and she feels her father suffered the worst tragedy—separation from his mother by being abandoned, and then from his grandmother through death. She hopes it never happens to her. She feels she lives in a paradise of mother love.
When the girl becomes an adolescent, the relationship with the mother changes, and though it sounds normal enough, the girl is devastated. She acts out and becomes rebellious, shocked that her mother, who once gave her unconditional love, now criticizes her and finds her repulsive. When she accidentally walks in on her parents' making love, the split with the mother becomes obvious to both of them. She does not let her father hold her hand during a walk. She turns to friends her own age to make up for the loss of her parents' love.