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The Farming of Bones
By Edwidge Danticat
Soho. 312 pp. $23

Reviewed by Jacqueline Brice-Finch, professor of Africana literature at James Madison University and founding editor of MaComere, the journal of the Association of Caribbean Women Writers and Scholars.

Sunday, October 4, 1998; Page X04

  Book Reviews

For Haitian emigrants in the cane fields of the Dominican Republic in 1937, existence was nightmarish. Generalissimo Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, supreme commander-in-chief and president of the republic for seven years, decreed that his countrymen had to protect themselves from outsiders or lose control of the country.

According to Haitian lore, the generalissimo devised a simple test for distinguishing Haitians from his own countrymen. As a young farmer, Trujillo pursued a Haitian worker through two fields, one wheat and the other parsley. As the worker called out the names of the fields, Trujillo noted that he failed to trill the r of trigo (wheat) and perejil (parsley) or to pronounce the latter word's jota. Later, when the generalissimo gave the order to wipe out the Haitians, his soldiers needed only to demand "que diga perejil." (that they pronounce perejil.) to ferret them out. And workers for whom pesi was the word for parsley were summarily killed. In "The Farming of Bones," her second novel, Edwidge Danticat graphically retells the story of this governmental assault on Haitians from the cane worker's perspective.

Danticat's depiction of the cane cutter forever banishes the sanitized image of a worker wielding a machete, severing a cane stalk at its base and tossing the piece onto a cart. The actual cutting of the cane which the Haitians call kout kouto, a stabbing, is a constant assault on human skin.

The protagonist, Amabelle Desir, a house servant on a sugar plantation, sees firsthand the ravages of the cane field. Her lover, Sebastien Onius, bears the marks. His face is a patchwork of furrowed scars. Calluses have obliterated the lifelines in his palms, and carbuncles bunch on his hips and belly. Another worker shaves his head to keep cane ticks off his scalp. The terrain is merciless: A shortcut through a cane field means taking tiny steps in a spongy marsh so as not to stir the cane stalks or invite inspection by rats or snakes; inhaling a searing, noxious heat; withstanding bloodthirsty ants; and enduring slashes from the cane.

When Amabelle's employer, an officer in Trujillo's army, leads an attack on the Haitians in his district, she flees with a few compatriots across mountain paths to her homeland. While still in a border town, the group is savagely beaten by Dominican thugs while nearby an orchestra entertains the generalissimo. Describing the intensity of her pain, Amabelle says that her skin felt "as if my blood had been put in a pot to boil and then poured back into me." Why there is no retaliation from the Haitian government Danticat does not address directly: During the aftermath, one victim asks, "Why don't our people go to war because of this?" A photograph of President Stenio Vincent wearing a medal from Trujillo, given as "a symbol of eternal friendship between our two peoples," provides the only insight into Vincent's failure to avenge the massacre of approximately 40,000 Haitians.

The Haitian government did set aside a period of 15 days during which justices of the peace in several towns recorded the atrocities. Victims lined up daily to tell their stories of torture and survival, but not without further travail. While living on the Spanish side of the island (Hispaniola) that is divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the Haitians had been cheated because they lacked proper documents, and mill owners often subjected them to tyrannical treatment. Ironically, even in their own country, "papers were everything." The justices of the peace demanded them from the victims, though their flesh itself was "a marred testament." The various tortures they had suffered ranged from stuffing their mouths with peppered parsley to hanging men, women and children to offering people a choice of leaping over a cliff, facing soldiers with bayonets, or being beheaded by machete.

Early in the book, Danticat compares cane to bones, which when cut sound like dry chicken bones being broken. The cane life is called travay te pou zo, the farming of bones. Trafficking in human bones is vital to the cane industry's success on Hispaniola. The poor are an expendable commodity, especially those from Haiti, who are exported "to rid that country of their blight."

In this novel, lyrical dream sequences alternating with chronological chapters underscore the psychological damage to the characters. As she so clearly did in her first novel, "Breath, Eyes, Memory" and her National Book Award-nominated short-story collection, "Krik? Krak!," in "The Farming of Bones" Danticat portrays the resilience and fortitude of a much-maligned but steadfastly heroic people.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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