Minding Ben is Victoria Brown’s first novel. The book is fiction but Ms. Brown actually lived out events very similar to those she writes about. She is from Trinidad, her character, Grace, is from Trinidad. She came to NYC at sixteen; her character also arrives in NYC when she is sixteen. Grace is supposed to be met at the airport by her aunt but no one meets her. She must fend for herself. She meets a woman who is also from the islands who offers her a less than appealing place to stay, but considering how little this woman, Sylvia has, is an amazingly generous thing. Sylvia has three children and is living in an apartment riddled with peeling lead paint which is affecting the health of her youngest child and with a relative named Bo whose life is on a downward trajectory. Both are uneducated and have little hope of improving their lives. These ”friends” (who expect babysitting and housekeeping help and who frequently ask for money) serve as an example to Grace of where she does not want to go in her new American life, but her dilemma is, of course, how to avoid it. Grace nannies for a while and when that job ends she is thrown back on the mercy of Sylvia and crew while she looks for a new position. Grace’s immediate goal is to find a sponsor who will support her citizenship application or to make a fake/real marriage with Bo who is already a citizen (which fortunately she doesn’t do.)
Grace answers an ad placed by the Bruckner’s who need someone to mind their son Ben. They hire Grace who enters the world of West Indian nannies in the nearby park. She is a live-in nanny on week days and goes back to Sylvia-world on weekends. The Bruckner’s are and are not terrible people. They are probably just extremely self-absorbed. They also believe in getting their money’s worth and Grace works a twelve hour day doing housework and cooking in addition to minding Ben.
The best thing that happens to Grace is that she meets a well-to-do gay man who lives in the same building as the Bruckner’s and who has a greenhouse built around his penthouse apartment. He is trying, unsuccessfully to grow papayas. Grace, who gardened with her family, helps him with his papaya problem and helps him care for his plants. When the Bruckner’s no longer need her services she is invited to stay in Dave’s penthouse to care for his plants while he is in Key West.
The author, Victoria Brown, majors in English at Vassar College and attends the University of Warwick in England before she returns to teach English at LaGuardia Community College. Now she lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children and she has a babysitter of her own. We can guess that Grace’s life went very much like this.
I’ve read nanny books before and they always have appeal because they form a little window into a world most of us don’t occupy. There is an element of the gossip sheet about them, although we cannot actually identify the rich people we are reading about. This book is interesting on that level, but it also forms another little window into the world of those who come to America from the West Indies seeking a life that promises more opportunities and affluence, but does not always deliver. All in all, Victoria Brown did good.
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