By Edwidge Danticat.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.
242 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
March 2004

As the novel opens the young Brooklyn-based Haitian artist, Ka, is in Florida to deliver a wooden sculpture she has made. The customer is a wealthy successful Haitian entertainer and the subject of the sculpted piece is her father. It is a great shock to Ka when her father destroys the statue before they can deliver it, claiming his is not worthy of being so immortalized, and tells her his deep secret past of being a prison guard, a very cruel and brutal one, under Papa Doc. Eventually he left Haiti, came to the U.S. and began a new life. He had only told his wife of his past, and it’s not fully obvious if he told her all of it. Ka, who has both adored her father and despised Haiti’s torturers (nearly confronting a man in church she thinks may be Emmanuel Constant), is devastated by the shock and burden of this revelation.

Thus begins a series of loosely connected stories of others who have some relationship to state-sponsored torture in Haiti. The book is billed as a novel, but the form is quite intriguing. It’s not quite a novel in the sense of a single main story which guides the whole, even if there are numerous sub-plots. It’s not quite a book of short stories, where every individual story is relatively separate from the others, and self-contained. Rather, this is a quite creative piece which sort of blends the form of the novel and the form of the short story into a rather special book. A number of the chapters in the book did appear as independently published pieces, one as early as 1986.

The book carries a 2004 publication date, however, my copy, an advanced reader’s copy, I received in 2003. Also, quite a few initial reviews of the book appeared in early 2004 before the February uprising in Haiti which led to the overthrow of the government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Since that uprising and its success, many new reviews of this book have appeared in the past month. Knowing I would soon be reading the book myself, I haven’t read any of those reviews, so I don’t know what’s being said about the volume.

It is relevant to me that I read this work in middle March 2004 at the apex of the successful attack on Aristide’s government. In the daily e-mail list which I run, there were hundreds of stories of the “situation” in Haiti, and of Haiti’s problems. These stories were in such astonishing contrast to Danticat’s book that I was as much taken with the contrasts as with the book itself.

The newspaper accounts, while naming the specific leaders of the opposition, and always naming Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his leading supporters, tended to stay at a relatively general level of description and analysis. The subject of these newspaper accounts was always, in some vague sense or other, “Haiti,” even “Haiti since 1804 independence.”

Danticat on the other hand deals very little with “Haiti.” She deals with the terrible burden and horrible acts of Ka’s father. She dwells on her mother’s difficult life trying to forget her husband’s past and believe in “the new man.” She presents the confused young man who comes to recognize the guard who killed his own parents, but doesn’t really want the violence of revenge nor the life of crime that implies. And on and on Danticat deals with insight, sensitivity, emotive power and the individual reality of the people’s response to this torture; and what it does to their lives.

State-sponsored torture and brutality are a part of Haiti’s 200 year history. Danticat, staying much more within the realm of her own experience, deals only with the torturers from Papa Doc’s time on. She draws on some famous cases which have appeared both in newspaper accounts and famous books on Haiti. But, she gives us a more detailed fictionalized account, and always takes us into the feelings of the characters she presents.

The title, The Dew Breaker, comes from a Creole phrase which refers to those who break the serenity of the grass in the morning dew. It is a Creole nickname for torturer. We learn that name in a very touching account of an old demented woman in the chapter, “The Bridal Seamstress.” This is the story of a young reporter assigned to do a brief human interest story of a well-known Haitian seamstress in the U.S. who makes beautiful bridal gowns, but is now retiring. The reporter is bored with the story and wishing for meatier topics. The seamstress lets slip that a “dew breaker” not only lives on her block, but follows her around wherever she lives. She’s sure it’s because when she (frequently) moves she writes her friends. She plans to move one last time, telling no one where she will be. In this way she dreams of peace from the fear of this man. The reporter decides to investigate this story of the “dew breaker” and goes to the home to discover it vacant. A neighbor tells her its been vacant for many months. Yet, during the interview and especially in the seamstress’s account of her fear of the dew breaker, we get the deep deep feeling sense of what it would be like to have lived with that terror all one’s life and have it never go away.

Edwidge Danticat is an extraordinary writer. She gives us real people with damaged lives rooted in the long tradition of torture in Haiti. One story of Danticat teaches me more than dozens of abstracted news stories which I happened to be reading daily at the same time. With Danticat I felt I coming into touch with the human reality of such suffering. As time goes on I know from my past I will forget the details of the uprising and overthrow. I think the lives of Danticat’s cast of characters will remain with me forever.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett