Edwidgde Danticat | Haiti
Amabelle and Sebastien are young lovers living in a small village on the Dominican side of the river that divides Haiti from the Dominican Republic. Though there has always been tensions between the races, new rumors are circulating of Haitians being killed by the Dominican military. But on the day Sebastian and Amabelle decide to flee to Haiti, the killings escalate and Amabelle never makes it to their agreed meeting place; and Sebastian disappears.
Set in 1937, the story recounts the massacre of Haitians living in the Dominican Republic under President Trujillo. After Amabelle flees from her employers, we follow her experiences trying to get back to Haiti—walking for days through the mountains, seeing burnt villages and massacred people, being beaten by a mob, and a devastating river crossing.
All of this Amabelle survives. But though the story itself moves slowly, especially after she gets back to Haiti. Prior to her leaving, the book focuses on her life as a domestic worker and the intricacies of that household, including issues of colorism and male child preference. The conditions and grievances of the Haitians in the village are the main reason behind the growing tensions.
And though there are many strong characters, Amabelle’s to me is the most conflicting. She’s passive by nature and it takes her a long time to concede that the Haitians are indeed being targeted and killed. After arriving in Haiti, she never really cultivates any real plan for her life and spends over 20 years being a seamstress to anyone who needs clothes mended. All the while nursing her lost love, Sebastian.
Although heart wrenching, Danticat’s writing at this point of her career is lyrical and I enjoyed learning about the political and racial tensions that existed between the two countries and some of the racial dynamics that left some people in limbo—not being able to claim nationality from either Haiti or the Dominican Republic. It’s a moving narrative that doesn’t have a satisfying ending.
First published: 1998
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