For a writer to take on a prominent historical event, especially one that has been discussed by journalists and historians and become the subject of literature, is a challenge. Edwidge Danticat rises to the occasion in The Farming of Bones, her powerful novel about Dominican Republic dictator General Rafael Trujillo's 1937 massacre of Haitian citizens. Claiming that the Haitians were taking over his nation and "tainting" it with their blood, the general found a chillingly ingenious method for rooting out these "undesirables." Suspects were forced to speak the Spanish word for parsley, perejil; the Haitians, unable to pronounce it, were put to death. This incident - and more broadly the politics of hatred colored by nationalism - is central to the novel and gives the stories their haunting character.
Like her earlier works, Krik? Krak! and Breath, Eyes, Memory, Danticat's third book transports us into the heart of Haitian culture. In this case, the subject is an expatriate, orphaned working class, its culture sustained in the desperate grasp of impoverished farm laborers and house servants living across the border in the Dominican Republic - the "vwayajes," or wayfarers, who remember, through dreams, songs and the jagged shards of memory, a past they long for but cannot return to. They hang on by preserving the little things even as they realize that there are more significant remnants they have forgotten. Thus Amabelle, the narrator, unable to recall the remedies her herb-doctor parents used to give their patients, muses as she watches an old man bathing in a river, scrubbing himself with parsley:
We used pesi, perejil, parsley, the damp summer morningness of it . . . for our food, our teas, our baths, to cleanse our insides as well as our outsides of old aches and griefs, to shed a passing year's dust as a new one dawned, to wash a new infant's hair for the first time and . . . a corpse's remains one final time.
The plight of Amabelle's community will resonate for many immigrants who have crossed borders with hope-filled hearts, only to find a hatred beyond understanding, a hatred perfectly expressed in the novel when Senor Pico, Amabelle's employer, shatters every piece of his imported tea set because his wife invited cane workers to drink from them. The horror of what happens to the Haitians is something many immigrants fear, in that dark recess of the psyche they keep secret from outsiders.
Many stories are skillfully interwoven in The Farming of Bones, whose title refers to the phrase used by the cane workers for their grueling work in the fields. Foremost among them is the tale of the orphaned Amabelle, now a maid in the rich Senora Valencia's household, and her lover, Sebastien, a gentle cane worker who brings her out of the nightmares that plague her, and gives her a reason to live. Their flight to the border on the fateful night when the massacres begin, their separation and Amabelle's long, despairing search for Sebastien form the core of the book. There is also the story of Kongo, whose son is killed early on by a speeding jeep driven by the Senora's husband, a rising official in General Trujillo's army, and who must live with his unavenged sorrow. And the story of Sebastien's friend Yves, who helps Amabelle as she tries to escape across the border, falls in love in the process and almost dies with her. We also hear the story of the Dominicans - Papi, the Senora's old father, who is sickened by what he sees his country becoming but remains powerless to prevent the calamities occurring around him, and the Senora, who must live with the tragedy of her newborn son's death, wondering forever if it was a punishment for her husband's crime. If these characters are less compelling than the Haitians, their voices muffled, their silhouettes blurred as though seen through a veil, if we feel less for their grief and loss, if we are impatient with their guilt - perhaps that is what Danticat intends.
In the stories built around moments, characters emerge whom we cannot forget even though we see them for only an instant. The soldiers Amabelle spies escorting a heavily laden ox cart, covered with brown sugar sacking, down a country road:
The cart suddenly stopped, the wheels wedged in a ditch where the slope of the hill met the valley road. One of the men took out a whip and slapped it against the ground, damning the oxen for being so big and so slow. The oxen struggled, raising their front legs, but could not draw the cart out of the trench . . . Finally [the men] strolled to the back of the cart. "The blanket was loose," one said, tucking the sugar sack sheets beneath the cargo.
The loose blanket stirred. A groan could be heard coming from the cart. One of the men picked up a fist-sized rock and pounded on the head - or it might have been an elbow - pushing up the sack. There was no more stirring. The man threw the rock away. They shoved and bumped the cart out of the ditch, then the oxen took over and continued down the meadow.
The deceptively simple, understated language in which Amabelle reports this scene only adds to its horror. This is the power of The Farming of Bones, a novel of anger, poignancy and political awareness, timely indeed at a moment in human history when dictatorships and ethnic purges seem to be much in fashion. Raising Danticat's novel from a well-told tale to the realm of the compelling are the dream-and-memory chapters interspersed throughout the book in bold lettering. Here Amabelle recalls and imagines, grieves and fears and comes to accept. And though the stylistic transition between the chapters that propel the story forward and these backward-looking chapters is not always seamless, their poetic depth and surprising insights more than make up for it. Here is an image that recurs in Amabelle's dreams:
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I dream of the sugar woman. Again. As always, she is dressed in a three-tiered ruffled gown inflated like a balloon. Around her face, she wears a shiny silver muzzle, and on her neck is a collar with a clasped lock dangling from it . . . "Why is that on your face?" I ask. "This?" She taps her fingers against her muzzle. "Given to me a long time ago, this was, so I'd not eat the sugarcane." "Why are you here?" I ask her. "Told you before," she says. "I am the sugar woman. You, my eternity."
You, my eternity. This, we have been told, is what Amabelle's mother called her. Who then is this enigmatic woman? Herself? Her mother? An embodiment of the souls of the Haitians forced to labor in a land whose fruits they are not allowed to enjoy? Danticat chooses to leave us wondering.
The dream chapters also bring us images that create the unique texture of the book: images of children carrying their dead parents home and dead sons laid naked in the earth, of masks for remembrance and beaded bracelets for protection, of bitter oranges and basil to heal, and of water. Water the destroyer, in the form of the river - ironically named Massacre - in which Amabelle's parents drown, and in which, later, many of the escaping Haitians lose their lives. But there is also the waterfall on the Dominican side, behind which Amabelle and Sebastien make love for the first time, where the light is a "luminous green fresco - the dark green of wet papaya leaves." It is the utopia Amabelle will dream of all her days, and the place in her heart she will risk her life to try and find again. No wonder Danticat thanks the poet Rita Dove, who also wrote about the Haitian massacre in her poem "Parsley." She shares with Dove the ability to look keenly into a landscape or a moment, find in it that which is mythic, and capture it in images that are as precise and dangerous as golden hooks, images that will sink into our skin and not let go for a long time.
American Book Award winner Chitra Divakaruni is the author of Arranged Marriage and The Mistress of Spices.