By Candice Russell
The following is an article I wrote that was originally published on September 20, 1998 in the Sun-Sentinel newspaper in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It is my review of a novel by Haiti’s best-known literary export, Edwidge Danticat. “The Farming of Bones” (Soho Press, 312 pages) is a fictionalized story set against actual historical events. It is the kind of compelling drama that would make a terrific film adaptation. Directors in Hollywood — are you listening?
Every country has at least one literary torchbearer, someone whose perspective on folkways and history resonates with a foreign audience. For Haiti, that person is Edwidge Danticat, a young woman with a formidable reputation after writing two books — the novel “Breath, Eyes, Memory” in 1994 and the short story collection “Krik? Krak!” in 1995.
Danticat, 29, left the beleaguered island that is both Haiti and the Dominican Republic when she was 12. A graduate of Barnard College and Brown University, she presents her view of a little-known event in Haiti’s recent past in “The Farming of Bones,” a forceful, evocative fictionalization that should win her new fans.
She personalizes what can be called a holocaust against Haitians — the torture and massacre of 20,000 Haitians in the Dominican Republic in 1937. The narrator is Amabelle Desir, an orphaned Haitian child found by the river and put to work in a Dominican home as a maid. It is salvation that puts a price on her freedom.
By age 25, Amabelle is still an innocent, a trusting woman who asks little for herself in service to Senora Valencia. Her lover, Sebastien, who crossed the border from Haiti to the Dominican Republic in search of work, labors in a nearby sugar cane field. He wants a way out of this hard life, even before rumors circulate that they are in danger.
Signs and portents prefigure what’s to come. Senora Valencia gives birth to twins, a short-lived occasion for joy. When her army officer husband drives hurriedly home, he accidentally kills a man on the roadside, Sebastien’s friend from from the old country. Soon after, one of the twins dies.
The long, impossibly hard journey of Amabelle away from the home she has known, her separation from Sebastien, and surprising rescue are meticulously detailed. These passages are almost painful to read because the suffering and grief of so many are so great. Like Stephen Crane in “The Red Badge of Courage,” Danticat puts the reader in the depths of circumstances where survival is unlikely.
How or why Dominican President Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo sought to systematically exterminate Haitians is not explained here. They had lived in the country for decades, doing the dirtiest work. Some Haitians had even become prosperous.
This isn’t a book about political statements, troop movements, and peace treaties. It’s about the fallout of the unexplainable on people without a chance. A Haitian could be killed for the transgression of a simple mispronunciation of the word “parsley.”
This cross-cultural tale of bravery is infused with belief in mystical connections, superstition, and dreams. Strong characters are delineated in a few words.
Spanish-born Papi, the guilt-wracked grandfather of the twins, thinks there is a link between what he did in war years ago and his own domestic losses. Kongo, a respected Haitian elder, is a voice of reason among young men bitter about their persecution in the cane fields.
The aftermath of the holocaust follows Amabelle to a new life with Yves, her companion in escape, in her birth city of Cap-Haitien. It is an existence filled with regret and pain, as if the juncture of hope were irrevocably crossed and forgotten.
The title refers to the brutal labor of the cane fields. It is also something more, as Amabelle persists in her search for Sebastien and a figurative vestige of her parents, who drown in a river on the wrong side of the border.
In the fractious history of Haiti, the world first independent black republic, the country has found a powerful voice in Danticat.