A Small Place Summary
There's not much to say here, to be honest. You're a tourist who arrives in Antigua, the voice of a disembodied narrator speaking in your ear. Okay, that's pretty weird, now that we think about.
After that, you learn some things about Antigua. And that's pretty much that, so go on and read the darn thing already.
- We open on an unnamed narrator talking to a tourist (referred to as "you") who has just arrived in Antigua, a small island in the Caribbean.
- The tourist goes through customs easily, lucky to be a resident of a wealthy country and not an Antiguan native who would be harassed at every step during this procedure.
- The tourist exits the airport and comments on how Antigua is "more beautiful than any of the other islands" (1.1). The tourist is psyched: This is way more exciting than his/her boring life back home.
- After haggling with a cabbie over fare, the tourist is swept down a "very bad road" (1.2) to his/her hotel. Oddly, the tourist loves these decrepit roads because they're a nice change of pace from the perfect roads back home. Because that makes sense, right?
- The tourist wonders why there are so many fancy Japanese cars on the road. The truth is unsettling: The government (which owns the banks) provides financing for vehicles but not houses, forcing Antiguans to live in substandard conditions while ensuring that tourists get the hoity-toity rides they need.
- They pass several buildings, including the hospital (famous for being terrible) and the old Antigua Public Library. The library was seriously damaged in the earthquake of 1974 and still hasn't been fixed.
- Not long after this earthquake Antigua won its independence from England. The tourist (and the West, as a whole) likes to take credit for any success that Antigua has achieved, but the narrator refers to this twisted mentality as "the last straw" (1.3) for her.
- The cab passes several mansions—one owned by a family of Middle-Eastern merchants, another by an infamous drug dealer, and another by a lady who gets up close and personal with a high-ranking government official. Charming.
- Oddly, the roads surrounding the drug dealer's mansion are pristine—even nicer than "the road that was paved before the Queen's visit in 1985" (1.3) to make her think that the country was well-cared for.
- Exhausted from all this darn thinking, the tourist zones out until s/he arrives at the hotel.
- The narrator then states, rather plainly, that tourists are bad people. She's not saying that they're bad in their everyday lives, but only that their actions as tourists end up hurting the places they visit.
- The tourist is jealous of the natives because of their so-called simple lives, but this self-centeredness prevents him/her from realizing the harm that s/he is doing.
- But the truth is that the natives are jealous, too—they wish that they were the ones who could afford to take a nice vacation. But they live in a poor country, so they're forced to be entertainment for people wealthier than them.
- The Antigua that the narrator grew up in "no longer exists" (2.1). She means this in more ways than one, since at the time, the country was still under British rule.
- One of the most prominent institutions at the time was Barclays Bank on High Street. Although the Barclay family now owns banks, they originally earned their fortune through the slave trade. Gross. In a deeply upsetting irony, they now make even more money by offering bad loans to the descendants of the people they kidnapped and sold.
- Another prominent institution is the Mill Reef Club, a social club owned by wealthy vacationing Americans. Black Antiguans were denied entry (except as staff) for a very long time.
- The Antiguans are mistreated by just about every outsider that arrives. There's this one doctor—a Czech immigrant—who "would send his wife to inspect" (2.3) Antiguans before he would treat them. You'd think that a guy who ran away from Hitler might take a stand against discrimination, but nope.
- For their part, the Antiguan people are less offended by the clearly racist connotations of these actions than people's simple rudeness. After all, aren't Europeans supposed to be civilized?
- The narrator, on the other hand, is filled with rage by these memories, as well as by the injustices that continue to the present day.
- She blames imperialists for oppressing local populations and, in many cases, enslaving them, and she connects these human rights crimes to the capitalist system that still runs the world today.
- The narrator is standing outside the new library, which is actually just a small, disorganized space above a dry goods store. As mentioned earlier, the old Antigua Library has been waiting for repairs for over a decade.
- The old library is currently occupied by a traveling carnival called "'Angels From the Realm'" (3.1).
- The narrator visits a woman from the Mill Reef Club to ask for donations to rebuild the library. The woman, in mega-condescending fashion, tells her that it's not going to happen because the area is being turned into a tourist district. Hmmm…
- The narrator's mother was a political activist herself, once standing up to a government official involved in a shady stamp scam. The official was issuing stamps to a small, uninhabited island and taking the money for himself.
- According to the narrator, people who live "in a small place" like Antigua "cannot see themselves in the larger picture" (3.2). She uses this idea to explain Antiguans' still-powerful emotions regarding slavery and emancipation.
- This concept leads to some cruel ironies—Antiguans rail against slavery yet celebrate "a school that teaches Antiguans how to be good servants" (3.4) without seeing the connection between the two.
- This also leads them to also turn a blind eye toward government corruption. For example, the aforementioned Japanese cars are sold by the aforementioned Middle-Eastern immigrant family—oh yeah, and partially financed by the government.
- In fact, there's a great deal of tension between Antiguans and the wealthy Middle Eastern immigrants who now own a good portion of the country's real estate.
- Oddly, they're looked at with more distrust than Europeans or Americans, despite the fact that both of those two groups have been doing harm to Antigua for generations. This tension even leads, in some cases, to violence.
- Government officials—when not being assassinated by each other—don't seem to care about anything. After all, they're all "legal residents of the United States" (3.7) and can just take a flight out if things get too crazy.
- The government has been run by the same party (the Antigua Trades and Labour Union), and the same man, for all but five years of its independence. That's never a good sign.
- Antiguans have mixed feelings about the man: Sometimes he seems like a liberator, sometimes he seems like a gangster, and sometimes he seems like a tyrant. Sounds like a winner.
- Antigua is such a beautiful place that it looks like a "stage set for a play" (4.1). This immense, unchanging beauty is what causes so many people to come to its shores.
- This unchanging nature has a strange effect on native Antiguans, though, since they have nothing to compare this wondrous place to, and no way of understanding its context in the rest of the world.
- Although the slaves who were brought to the island are now free, they're now faced with a new challenge: to live free as "human beings" (4.2).