Tuesday, April 5, 2011

You can never hide as long as there is parsley nearby

In an effort to read a more diverse selection of literature, I've picked up The Farming of Bones by Haitian author Edwidge Danticat . I bought the book for a class sometime back in college, judging by the "used" stickers on it, yet I believe it was one of the books we never got to. I'm glad I did buy this, even if we never got around to it in class, because it's definitely a book I wouldn't have otherwise picked up. Not without some very strong recommendations from trusted sources anyway.

The book deals with the Parsley Massacre, the months leading up to the killings and the years after as the survivors try to come to terms with the grief they've experienced and the people they've lost. The Generallissimo Rafael Trujillo ordered the deaths of some 30,000 Haitians living in the Dominican Republic. In order to determine who was Haitian, Trujillo's soldiers would ask people to pronounce the Spanish word for parsley, perejil, knowing that Haitians "did not trill their r...or pronounce the jota" (304).

The story is narrated by Amabelle, a young Haitian girl who was orphaned when a raging river took her parents. Amabelle was rescued by a wealthy Dominican family and raised with Papi's daughter, eventually becoming a house servant in the Dominican Republic. During the day she is happy with her life, caring for Senora Valencia and hoping to one day marry Sebastian, a fellow Haitian who works on a sugar cane plantation. At night she's haunted by the deaths of her parents as her dreams keep taking her back to the day they died. One day Senora gives birth with Amabelle acting as midwife. As Senora's husband Pico, an officer for Trujillo, rushes home to greet his newborn children, he runs over a Haitian. Anxious to get home to his family, he refuses his father-in-laws pleas to stay and see who was hurt and if there's anything they can do. It turns out the man he hit was Sebastian's friend Joel. Sebastian and Yves were able to jump out of the car's way in time, but Joel wasn't so lucky. Pico mimics the general sentiments of the Dominican population, that a Haitian life isn't worth a second thought. Eventually the El Corte killings reach Amabelle's town and the people must flee if they hope to survive.

I tend to stay away from summaries in my reviews because I'd rather discuss pieces of the book and leave a summary for any of the other million places you can get one. However, I'm having trouble coming up with something to say. This book is certainly not light and I can't put my finger on any particular problem, but I wasn't moved by the story as I thought I would be. I like the characters, I think they're well-rounded and well-described. But I never got a chance to connect with them. Perhaps the problem is the story feels rushed. It's not a long book, only 310 pages, yet it seems to cover so much. Just as I'm getting used to normal life in Alegria, the cuttings start. Various characters say there are rumors of soldiers killing Haitians with machetes but the story never makes it feel like this is a real rumor touching on the characters. I needed to be shown, not told that these rumors were floating around. I never feel the suspicion, the worry that many of the characters say they're experiencing. Likewise, it feels like the journey to Haiti ends so abruptly. The only time I feel like the characters get a chance to tell their story is as the years go by and the survivors deal with their grief.

That said, Danticat has some beautiful prose that almost makes up for the quickness of the story. As a matter of fact, I was so taken by her writing that I didn't really notice how quickly we'd moved on and how much more I wanted to read until the moment had passed. There's a part where Amabelle, during a fever dream, sees her mother
"I was saving my smile for when you needed it," she says, in a cheerful voice I do not remember, for she had always spoken so briefly and so sternly. "I didn't want you to think that love was not scarce because it is, that it flowed freely from everywhere, or that it was something you could expect without price from everyone"..."You were like my shadow. Always fled when I came to you and only followed when I left you alone. You will be well again, ma bell, Amabelle. I know this to be true. And how can you have ever doubted my love? You, my eternity." (208)
I haven't found a new favorite book or a new favorite author, though I'm not opposed to trying out something else Danticat has written, I'm glad to expand my reading circle beyond the sarcastic dark humor that is my usual go-to. And of course reading something out of the white, European-American, male literary canon is nice as well. If only this was written sometime before the 1970s I would have fulfilled all of my goals from my March reading wrap-up. Don't worry, this doesn't mean I think I'm done reading non-white, non-American authors (just as it doesn't mean I'm never going back to those guys), it just means I'm moving in the right direction.

Title quote from page 304

Danticat, Edwidge. The Farming of Bones. Penguin Books, 1998.