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Annie John is ten years old and has an intensely close relationship with her mother. This is an awesome mama-daughter relationship, full of affection and devotion. Fueled by her mother's loving care and guidance, Annie feels completely safe and happy. Like Peter Pan, Annie does not want to grow up or share her mother's love with anyone. During the summer, she becomes obsessed with death and children dying.
But by age twelve, Annie has a growth spurt and needs all new clothes for school. Her mother doesn't allow her to wear dresses that match her own anymore because Annie is now "becoming a young woman" and will one day have her own household. Annie feels rejected by her mother's cold behavior and her refusal to wear super-cute mother-daughter outfits. Annie also starts menstruating and starts attending a new school.
One day, Annie walks in on her parents in an ambiguous scene in which they are embracing and possibly knockin' boots in their bed. Annie sees her mother's "circling hand" on the small of her father's back, and after this, she can never look at her mother the same way. She no longer loves her the way she used to; "I was sure I could never let those hands touch me again; I was sure I could never let her kiss me again. All that was finished" (2.21).
This is a huge departure from Annie's earlier feelings for her mother...she previously viewed her as saintly. She vacillates between being repulsed by her mama and thinking that she is the most beautiful woman in the world.
By the end of the first day at her new school, Annie develops strong feelings of love for a girl in her class named Gwen. They walk arm in arm to and from school everyday and are "love birds." They tell each other their deepest secrets and can do no wrong in each other's eyes. It is a strong sisterhood (or possibly a budding romance) and Annie wonders if she should tell Gwen about her changing feelings for her mother.
Then, Annie meets the Red Girl, the antithesis of everything Annie's mother has trained her to be. The Red Girl is dirty and mangy. Partially out of an act of defiance and partially just because the heart wants what the heart wants, Annie loves the Red Girl deeply. She begins to steal books, deface school property (a Columbus picture), and play marbles. Basically, she rages against the machine and declares war on her mother and her mother's moral codes, ethics and standards of behavior. Throughout all this, she's still an excellent student in the classroom.
During a season of unexpected heavy rains after a draught, Annie falls seriously ill. Annie is bedridden and has visions. She's near death. She's as helpless as an infant and her mother and father treat her as one, changing her wet clothes, bedding, cleaning up for her after she makes a mess, holding her and carrying her to the doctor.
After destroying the family photographs in her bedroom during a hallucination, Annie cannot be left alone. Her mother cannot carry out her daily chores and her neighbors have to help her and the fish for family dinners is delivered to them.
Ma Chess, Annie's grandmother, is an obeah woman who comes to cure her mysterious illness. Completely taking over her mother's duties, Ma Chess sweeps in and succeeds where Annie's mother, Dr. Stephens (the town doctor), and even Ma Jolie, the local obeah woman failed.
Ma Chess lives in Dominica and arrives in Antigua without notice, and on a day the boat wasn't expected. She sleeps on the floor in Annie's room and never leaves her side. The power of obeah in saving Annie's life corrects the death of Ma Chess's own son, John, who relied only on Western medicine instead of obeah. Ma Chess vanishes just as mysteriously as she arrives once Annie gets better.
In the final chapter, Annie finally states her name and also announces that it is her last day in Antigua. At age seventeen, she chooses to move to England to become a nurse rather than stay with her mother and father in the only home she's ever known. She is now taller than both her father and mother. They all walk shoulder to shoulder down the main roads in town to the jetty.
During this walk, she reflects on her life up until that time as she passes all the familiar places—church, school, library—that defined her childhood and adolescence. Annie is no longer in love with Gwen; Gwen is now only an annoying former acquaintance to whom she feels obliged to say goodbye. Even though she hugs her parents, smiles, cries with her mother and feels sadness at the time of departure, Annie knows that "I shall never see this again" (8.17).
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