If you’re buying groceries at Eldon’s in French Harbour you may see a woman sitting out front selling a book: the Darker Side of Paradise: the Life of Carolina Brooks. Buy it.
According to its foreword, the book describes the daily struggles of one of the “many hidden impoverished souls” who inhabit the Roatan that tourists do not see.
Brooks, 50, was raised in French Harbour by her grandmother after her mother left for the US in search of a better life. “She treat me rough,” she said of her grandmother. “I was like the black sheep of the family.”
At 11, Brooks contracted polio, leaving her with a locked jaw and deformed legs. For seven years she had to take her meals through a straw, could not brush her teeth and had trouble walking or speaking. Nonetheless, she found a job waiting tables at the Yacht Club and enrolled in school, against her grandmother’s wishes, completing the fourth grade.
“Every time I would go to school, she would beat me,” Brooks writes. But she later thanked her grandmother for those beatings, because “sometimes challenges and difficulty make you want something even more.” She also learned that “if you don’t stand up for your own rights, no one else will.”
With little support or nurturing from her biological family, Brooks said she “fought through” and found other people who would “give me shelter and give me love.” In particular, she met some American volunteer doctors who arranged for her to go first to La Ceiba then to California to be operated on to restore normal use of her mouth and legs.
She spent about a year in the US and managed to reunite in New York with the mother and siblings she had never known, at her mother’s funeral; she died of cancer.
Brooks returned to Roatan in 1982 physically restored but with her circumstances little changed. Her grandmother died and left her the house. But a jealous aunt fought her over it. She again looked to the kindness of strangers, in this case then Roatan Mayor Jerry Hynds, who built her a new house.
She found various ways to get by, such as selling bundles of Goodwill clothing from the US. She had five sons, one of whom died in infancy while she was in the hospital. He fell sick and vomited for days, but relatives did not take him to a doctor until it was too late.
Interestingly, Brooks says nothing about the boys’ father(s), except that the boys, now in their teens and 20s, grew up without them.
“They all have problems with anger and they don’t respect authority,” she writes. “They all have good hearts, but they are lazy, and when there is nothing for them to do, they get into trouble.”
It was through her youngest son, Bebe, that she met Harrison Johnson, a Carolinian who taught at the Children’s Palace school in French Harbour and mentored Bebe. Johnson and his wife, Kendall, agreed to help Brooks write her life story, something she said she had dreamed of since she was a little girl wanting to “be somebody.” But she says her prime motivation for writing was her sons.
“They want to do good, and they know how to do good, but they face a constant struggle against the darkness of drugs, sex and violence which saturate this island,” she writes. “I am writing this book because those things are real, here and everywhere.”