Freedom Socialist book review: A beautiful, terrible tale of forgotten Haitian people

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Growing up in Haiti, Edwidge Danticat heard her relatives ask one another, “Do you think he was killed like the others were in 1937?” They would be discussing a family member or friend who went to the Dominican Republic for work and was never heard from again.

The adult Danticat, an award-winning author, attempts to answer the question of what happened to the Missing with her hauntingly, beautiful novel, The Farming of Bones.

Danticat sets her story in 1937, when the dictator Rafael Trujillo orchestrated a massacre of undocumented Haitians working in the Dominican Republic. It is estimated that between 9,000 and 20,000 people were killed, but the exact number will never be known. Those lost only mattered to their loved ones and families.

Many of the slaughtered were the poorest of the poor — migrant sugar cane workers. “The ruin of the poor is their poverty … The poor man, no matter who he is, is always despised by his neighbors,” declares one fleeing sugar cane worker in the book.

The author collected stories and memories from the survivors both in Haiti and across the border in the Dominican Republic; from these stories she created her narrative and characters, especially the main character of Amabelle Desir, who is also narrator.

Amabelle is a house maid, working since she was orphaned as a child, for a wealthy, Spanish immigrant, Don Ignacio and his daughter, Valencia.

The reader sees the world through Amabelle’s eyes, and Danticat does for the sugar cane workers and other Haitians and Dominicans of Amabelle’s small town what John Steinbeck did for the tenant farmers in his famous novel, The Grapes of Wrath.

She shows readers the back breaking, dangerous and brutal work of harvesting sugar cane. She also shows the humanity of the people doing that work, people such as Sebastien, who is Amabelle’s lover.

Sebastien, like most most of the Haitians in the story, is working and undocumented in the Dominican Republic due to the tragic and harsh circumstances of his life rather than because of any criminal desire to undermine national security.

Amabelle tells us, “Sebastien’s father was killed in the great hurricane that struck the whole island — both Haiti and the Dominican Republic — in 1930. He lost his father and almost everything else. This is why he left Haiti. This is why I have him.”

Poetic and compelling. Edwidge Danticat is a truly gifted writer. She invests her characters with rich, textured and complicated emotional lives. And while the massacre is the central incident around which her novel revolves, it is the life stories of the people in the book, and how survivors were affected by the violence that draws the reader in.

The Farming of Bones is a work of exquisite artistry — some of the chapters in the book could stand alone as poems. For example, one of Amabelle’s interior monologues reads, “The valley’s dust storms bring me joy. The dust rises in funnels from the ground and sweeps down the road. Like a sheet come undone from the clothesline, it makes its own shadow, along with the birds that circle above … I see my mother and father and myself. I am with them, a child who still must hold a hand to walk, a child who must look up to talk, to see all the faces … After the storm has cleared, I find myself with my hands raised up, in motionless prayer, as though some invisible giants were guiding me forward.”

A story for our times. While this book is not new, it is more relevant today than when it was written in 1998.

In the novel, a tour guide tells Amabelle, “Famous men never truly die … It is only those nameless and faceless who vanish like smoke into the early morning air.”

Nowadays it seems as if Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo is alive and well, even though he was assassinated in 1961. His xenophobic and racist policies live on in his nation’s Constitutional Court decision, in 2013, to retroactively deny citizenship to persons of Haitian descent born in the Dominican Republic dating back to 1929 — or in the anti-immigrant rantings of top presidential candidates in the U.S.

Everyone is affected by the current barrage of hate speech against immigrants that masquerades as public discourse. It desensitizes us to the human beings targeted by vicious rhetoric.

Edwidge Danticat’s novel confronts us with the ugly consequences of anti-immigrant campaigns. She gives name, face, and life to one of the “nameless and faceless” in the voice of Amabelle, and tells the stories of the dead and the survivors through her.

I heard once that the genius of capitalism is that it causes the working class to look into the mirror and spit. The genius of Danticat is that she shows us a picture of a girl from a different time, a different place, an alien, a refugee — and leads readers to recognize our sister.

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