Beka Lamb Summary

Zee Edgell

Beka Lamb

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Beka Lamb Summary

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Beka Lamb is Zee Edgell’s debut novel. Set in Belize, Central America, Beka Lamb tells the title character’s story—and her dealings with racial prejudice, social insecurity and religion. It was published in 1982 as part of the Heinemann Caribbean Writers Series and won the 1982 Fawcett Society Book Prize. Beka Lamb is a landmark book, as it is one of the earliest novels from Belize which gained international recognition and critical acclaim. It is praised for its setting—a society moving from colonialism to independence.
The book is set in 1950s Belize. Our protagonist, Beka Lamb, is 14 when the novel opens. The story is, however, told entirely using flashbacks, so the reader knows how the problems and conflicts developed in the text will turn out. This makes Beka Lamb a useful text for studying narrative technique.

When we meet Beka, she has just won an essay contest at the local St Cecilia’s Academy. It’s a conservative school with many prejudices, and Beka never thought she could win. Although this is cause for celebration, Beka can’t get too excited because her lifelong friend, Toycie, recently died. The traditional nine-day wake has not taken place yet, so no one can begin moving on. In addition to all of this, two politicians are imprisoned for disloyalty to the British Government. Pritchard and Gladsen were members of the Belizean Peoples’ Independent Party, and this punishment is meant to serve as a strong warning against further rebellion.

Beka considers what it means that her friend is gone, and she decides she will keep a private vigil for Toycie in her own heart. Beka then starts telling us the rest of the story in flashbacks, leading up to ultimately winning this essay contest and her friend’s death. Only by thinking back on everything can Beka move on.

The story covers a short period—seven intense months. The first thing Beka tells us about herself is that her life changed the day she told her last lie—a serious one. Her parents struggle to pay for her private education, and it needs to be worth their while. She never wants to disappoint them where school is concerned. However, she fails numerous subjects and ends up failing the entire year. The school refuses to let her move up a grade, but she can’t tell her parents this.

Instead, Beka tells her parents that she passed because she can’t face their reaction to her failure. However, Beka’s parents already have their suspicions about her performance at school and know she likes to lie. The three clash all the time over Beka’s disobedience. For example, Beka never cleans garbage away properly and lets it build up in the garden, and she doesn’t clean the attic when she’s asked. She never finishes her chores.

What’s worse, she steals money from her father’s pockets. Her parents, then, know how ungrateful and unreliable she is. Beka frequently complains to her grandmother, Granny Ivy, and Toycie. Toycie doesn’t get involved, but Granny Ivy often takes her side. The bickering between Beka and her family is generally in good spirits.

Because they have a good relationship, for all their arguing, Beka finally admits her lie and her father gives her a second chance at school. To make sure she passes, a nun at the school, Sister Gabriela, helps Beka with her studies and encourages her to write an essay about Belizean history for a contest. However, no one has much confidence she can win—mainly because people of Beka’s heritage never win anything. It’s a wonderful surprise to everyone, then, when she does win.

Beka, however, is still trying to deal with her feelings over Toycie’s death. Toycie is 17, but the pair still get on very well. Both girls attend the same school, but Toycie’s family find it much harder to pay the fees. Toycie struggles more than Beka does—her mother and father abandoned her, and her aunt struggles to raise her. However, her aunt is determined she gets a great education—this is the only way out of poverty somewhere like Belize.

The one request Toycie’s aunt makes is that she stays away from boys—and listens to the nun’s advice on this matter. If Toycie gets pregnant, she’ll end up without an education, a husband, or prospects. Unfortunately, Toycie does get pregnant. She gets expelled from school and suffers a miscarriage, but she dies from complications a short while later. Beka is left grieving over what could have been for her friend.

The novel, however, ends on a hopeful note. Beka wants to learn from Toycie’s mistakes and make sure she gets the best opportunities. She wants to do better for her family, and for herself. We are left with a sense of Beka growing up and finding her feet at the same time Belize itself shakes off colonialism and moves towards independence.