By Madison Smartt Bell
New York: Panther Books, 2000.
ISBN: 0-375-42056-8. 752 pages, plus Glossary and historical chronology.
$30.00 hard bound.

Published Sunday, November 12, 2000, in the Miami Herald

Toussaint's bloody battle for the `bauble' of Haiti Master of the Crossroads. Madison Smartt Bell. Pantheon. 752 pages. $30.


With this, his ninth novel, Madison Smartt Bell returns to the Haiti he so beautifully and achingly portrayed in All Souls' Rising, a finalist for the 1995 National Book Award. Both books are historical, recounting Haiti's bloody fight for independence with the country itself a crucible for racial struggle. A Tennessee native, Bell is haunted by the politics of race, and with Master of the Crossroads he provides a history lesson that tells us much about our present and, perhaps, constitutes a warning for our future.

Taking up where its predecessor ended, Master of the Crossroads begins in 1794, with England, Spain and France all vying for control of the French Haitian colony Saint Domingue. The axis on which Bell's novel turns is Toussaint Louverture, the freed slave who led Haiti's revolt.

"Toussaint understood the colony to be tossed among the European powers like a precious bauble, a stake or a pawn in their games of war. As yet he did not know enough to reason his way to an outcome. The bits of information he possessed lay quietly in his mind, like seeds." Toussaint is a pawn, used by France and Spain as a means by which to seize Saint Domingue, just as the rich, detached colonists toy with the lives of the poor natives, diminishing a land and its people in order to serve their selfish needs. Toussaint passes through the crossroads of countries and races, assuming the role of hero, traitor, criminal, slave, husband, general, father, pagan and Catholic.

This befits the name he created and adopted, literally Toussaint of the Opening, a subtle invocation of Legba, the vodou god who guides people through crossroads. Bell incorporates into the character of Toussaint the few known historical facts. A diminutive man who nonetheless possessed "a strange, compelling dignity," Toussaint needed little sleep and, amid Haiti's shifting alliances, focused on liberating his country and his people. However, Haiti is a more vivid presence in these pages than its liberator, who remains remote throughout, his motivations never revealed. Even his brother-in-law says, "I don't suppose there's anyone who knows his mind."

Many other characters from the earlier novel have returned, honed by years of war and deprivation. Dr. Hebert, a grand blanc (propertied Frenchman), serves as rational witness to the colony's horrors. Nanon, his black mistress, is the life force of Haiti, seductive and powerful. Choufleur, a mulatto, is driven by hate for both blacks and whites for excluding him. Riau, the book's most complex and compelling character is, like Toussaint, a freed slave who leads Haiti's barely formed military. But while Toussaint's devout Catholicism brings him closer to the whites, Riau, steeped in vodou and governed by instinct, rejects them and their cold-blooded duplicity: "The whiteman must know a reason for each thing which he does, but with the people of Guinee, it is not so. I had a spirit walking with me . . . and had only to go where the spirit would lead me. . . ." Each of these characters reveals Haiti through a separate lens. Bell used multiple points of view to achieve kaleidoscopic effects as far back as his first novel, Washington Square Ensemble, but here on a much broader canvas he does so with measured success. Wanting to bear witness to the past, he feels compelled to include everything, and the details often weigh down the story. Where All Souls' Rising still possesses a dreamlike quality, Master of the Crossroads feels more labored and wordy. The book's action leaps back and forth in time, between Haiti's struggle for independence and Toussaint's later imprisonment in France. It ends several years before Haiti's bloody uprising in 1805, with the worst horrors of war yet to come. Through the conceit of war, Bell reveals humanity at its basest level and portrays sex and brutality, life and death, with equal painterly sensibility. Haiti's history -- like our own -- is dark, Bell reminds us. Yet he provides Master of the Crossroads with two endings: one, in which a multiplicity of races, beaten down by battle, comes tentatively together in hope, and another in which there is only dominance, only force, the only answer bloodshed. We cannot change the past; the future, however, is up to us. Bell leaves it to us to master that crossroads.

Ellen Kanner is a writer in Miami.


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