HOW IS IT that Sicily, Ireland, and Haiti, three islands that are so distant from one another, so different in climate, topography, cultural tradition, and racial makeup, share so many elements in common and have undergone such similar experiences? An exquisitely cultivated upper-class that excelled at writing in the language of the oppressors of invaders; a brutalized peasant class that was virtually a race apart of smaller or darker beings who spoke in dialect about a fabulous world of spirits and spells; a political tradtion of patronage, terrorism, and exile; a society whose alternative to starvation was emigration; and, above all, a history of bloody uprisings notable for their ferocity and heroism.

These elements are most pronounced and persistent in Haiti, the most enigmatic and intractable of the three islands, especially in the writing of its history, a drama of such baroque proportions and mythic quality that it overwhelms linear thinking and resists rational discourse as if only the indirection of art could convey it (for ex-to Papa Doc Duvalier-some of the world's most flamboyant as well as sinister leaders.

Histories of modern Sicily and Ireland have appeared in recent years, but there is still no rigorous, fully documented history of Haiti. Colonel Robert D. Heinl (U.S. Marine Corps, commander of the U.S. naval mission to Haiti until his expulsion by Duvalier in the 1960s) and his wife have attempted to fill the gap. There is no question that the Heinls are thoroughly, in ample, Alejo Carpentier's great novel Kingdom of This World ).

Haiti, then France's richest colony, was the site of the only successful slave revolt in history. There, after a prolonged struggle spanning the years 1971-1804, an army of illiterate and destitute slaves defeated the army of Napoleon Bonaparte (commanded by no less than General Leclerc, his own brother-in-law) as well as British and Spanish troops. The slaves, however, became emperors and oppressors in turn, engendering-from Toussaint 1'Ouverture deed overwhelmingly well informed about the island. The book, in fact, tends to sink under the weight of their research. With almost archeological zeal, the Heinls unearth every sliver of verifiable fact from Columbus' discovery of the island to Papa Doc's death. The result is almost 800 pages of prose so packed with detail that the reader is virtually smothered in information.

A story as complicated as Haiti's cannot be explained by a chronological recitation of events, no matter how sequential and verifiable, but by the application of some sort of historical analysis. If the Heinls' intent was to narrate rather than to explain, to tell us how rather than why , then they should have been much more selective with their facts.

The most impenetrable pages are those devoted to the slave uprising and the black leaders it produced (those interested in this extraordinary story are referred to C.L.R. James' splendid study Black Jacobins). On the other hand, the most accessible pages of Written in blood are those devoted to the U.S. Marines' occupation of the island from 1915 to 1934, and to Duvalier's armed squads, the dreaded Tonton Macoutes , two subjects Colonel Heinl clearly knows well enough to relax his grip on the index cards.

Other good features of the book include a comprehensive bibliography; many remarkable photographs (a number are from the authors' private collection); a chronology; and glossary. Scholars thoroughly familiar with Haitian history should be able to mine the Heinls' huge quarry to advantage; the average reader, however, must be forewarned.