Two cultures, embodied in Alma, an ex-nun, and Carmelo, a newly arrived young man from Puerto Rico, hit head-on in this ‘80s-era story about language and obsession.
A Short Joy for Alma Hedman begins as Alma, a troubled postulant nun, leaves her convent for an uncertain outside world. She brings with her strong religious beliefs, embodied in a handmade cross she wears around her neck. Her life collides in the big city with Carmelo, a young Puerto Rican who can barely speak English.
Unable to get a job in America without learning better English, Carmelo enrolls in Alma’s ESL class at a community college. Both are outsiders, and as it turns out, both have much to learn from the other.
Alma, an ex-Episcopalian postulant, is leaving the convent for good. On the drive home, her mother tells her, “We’ll stop at Bloomies – you have no clothes I’m sure; no home, no man.” Alma responds with religious platitudes, including, “Virginity is the highest calling.” Their annoyance with each other builds until Alma tells her mother to stop the car. As her mother drives off, Alma hears her yell, “Go find a church.”
Alma does just that. She comes across a large church as well as a mentor, who in exchange for a job, allows her to remain until she can adjust to the outside world. She’s told about a job teaching English at a new community college, something she did at the convent.
Carmelo, a young Puerto Rican, comes to the city and is met by his brother, Mario, who lectures him on the need to learn English, the “right English,” so he won’t end up a thief like him. All Carmelo wants is to get a job as a diesel engine repairman and bring his girlfriend, Miguelina, to the mainland.
But because Carmelo knows little English, he can’t get a job. Finally, a sympathetic garage owner tells him to come back when he can speak English.
Both Alma and Carmelo end up at Cardenas Community College. Alma is on duty at registration and Carmelo is in her line. He ends up in her ESL English class. Both have been dropped in a strange environment and have much to learn. What can these two learn from each other?
Author Frances Webb grew up in a small town in Northern New Jersey during World War II, and now lives in a Philadelphia suburb. This is her third novel. Her other books are Innocence and Gold Dust and Come to a Memory: Joab’s Story/Lila’s Story.
Now retired, the author’s inspiration for this story came while teaching in a community college and watching the struggle on all fronts that non-English speaking immigrants face.
This is the third novel by author Frances Webb.