Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes.
New York: Oxford Press, 1993 from 1931 original
ISBN # 0-19-508765-8.
110 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
August 2005

The novel opens as Papa Jean, Mamma Anna and little Popo and Finina, along with baby Pensia are approaching Cape Haiti. They are moving from the countryside where Papa Jean had supported them by farming, to the town where he can become a fisherman.

In this brilliantly and economically constructed novel, we follow the family’s progress and get a solid picture of life of the everyday Haiti person in the late 1920s. There really isn’t much of a story in the sense of plot line and complications followed by resolution. Rather, this is like verbal snapshots, bits and pieces of everyday life in the Cape Haiti of the novel (Cap Haitien).

The novel is written for American children who are assumed to be unfamiliar with Haiti, thus things that Bontemps and Hughes assume will not be familiar to the American audience are explained and compared with the typical way of doing things in the U.S. An early example is the practice of how meals are presented in the Haitian household:

When he (Popo) returned, Mamma Anna and Fifina were in the yard. Mamma Anna had unpacked her little charcoal stove, and Fifina stood holding the kettle in which the food would be cooked.

The sun was sliding down the sky fast now. There would not be time to cook a kettle of beans and rice, the usual peasant dish in Haiti, so Mamma Anna simply boiled a few plantains — the huge Haitian banana that went with every meal. Then she warmed over a pot of meat they had brought from their old home. While the fire burned and the pot sizzled, Mamma Anna squatted, resting her elbows on her knees. When she thought the food was warm enough, she filled Popo’s and Fifina’s small plates, which they carried a few yards away and placed on the ground.

Papa Jean was still down on the beach. Popo could see him standing beside the little boats, examining the catches of the fishermen, making motions with his hands as he talked, and evidently asking many questions. After a while, the fishermen started up a path to the road, and Papa Jean returned to his house. Popo finished his plate and asked for more. Mamma Anna explained that she had no plantains left, but that she was about to boil some yams of which he might have a helping when they were done.

In the meantime Papa Jean reached the house with several fine fish that he had procured from the fishermen. Mamma Anna began at once to clean these. And when the yams were done she put the fish in the kettle.

If Mamma Anna had lived in the United States, she probably would have cooked her entire meal before she allowed her children to begin eating. But her stove was very small, and so she cooked one thing at a time — in no particular order. And her children ate what she cooked as soon as it was ready.

The story is arranged so that a wide spectrum of everyday events are shown. Since they are new in town and Papa Jean is becoming a fisherman, we are told about that employment, as well as the daily life of the family in their one room hut. They soon make a visit back to the farm to see their grandmother and other relatives, so we see farm life. Popo gets a kite and we learn of kite fights and other pastimes. Soon he goes to work, very young indeed, at his uncle’s wood working shop and we learn not only about that trade, but of the young workers.

Actually that part of the story would not be very unfamiliar to many U.S. kids. The book was published during the depression and quite a few very young kids worked in this country as well.

The story finishes up on an outing of the larger family (uncle’s family as well as Popo and Fifina’s family) all go to visit the Cap Haiti lighthouse, and we witness the arrival of the rainy season on the same day.

Bontemps and Hughes have a keen eye for the details of every life. Hughes himself had been to Haiti about 3-4 years before they wrote the book and he spent considerable time in Cap Haitien.

I was especially delighted with the piece about Uncle Jacques’ wood working shop. Popo is now working there and is very impressed with his cousin Marcel’s carving he is making. They explain to Popo that he too will learn to do these and should actually begin. He asks for the “model,” but the older worker, Durand patiently explains there is no model and WHY there is no model:

Popo went around to Marcel’s workbench. Before him lay a beautiful serving tray carved from a single piece of wood. Marcel held it up so that Popo could look at it to advantage.

“It’s a beauty,” Popo exclaimed.

“Oh, it’s just plain,” Marcel said modestly. “You see, I haven’t been here so long myself. This is the first pretty thing I have tried to make.”

“And shall I make things like this?”

“Surely, cousin. You’ll make a tray like this in a week or two. Trays are easy.”

“But all that little fancy business around the edge and by the handles—isn’t that terribly hard ?“

“That is about the hardest part, but Papa Jacques will help you do that on the first one. He helped me with this one.”

Popo fixed his eyes on the careful designs carved by hand in the wood. There were flowers, leaves, and stems. The handles were twisted like the coils of a vine. “Does Uncle Jacques have another tray, a finished one, that he goes by when he makes a new one—a pattern?”

“No,” Marcel said. “The trays are all made alike, but each design is different. So the old patterns would not be much good. If a lady wants to buy a tray, she does not want it to look exactly like the one her neighbor has. So each one has to have its own design.”

Popo went back to his own bench and worked on his board. Sunshine flooded the little workshop. Uncle Jacques looked very tall and dignified working near the door. His forehead was wrinkled as he leaned over the strips of woods that he was fitting together. And as he worked, Popo noticed, he whistled or hummed a tune.

Old man Durand kept hobbling around, moving things and smoking his pipe. He was making a stool. But old man Durand was forgetful like many other old people, and he could never remember where he had laid his tools. This kept him constantly busy. So during the course of a day, old man Durand did not get as much done as Uncle Jacques — although he was really just as good a worker.

One thing was not clear in Popo’s mind. How could a person make designs on a tray without a pattern? And how could he get new designs for each tray? It was hard to figure out. I wanted to make all the fine pieces of furniture that Uncle Jacques and old man Durand made, but he was afraid it would take him a long time even to make an attractive tray. Later in the afternoon he went over to Marcel’s bench again.

“Marcel,” he said quietly, “tell me this: How can anybody make a design without a pattern, and how can he make a new design every day for every new tray he works on?”

“That’s a hard question, cousin. I’ve wondered about it myself. Let’s ask Papa Jacques.”

They went over to Uncle Jacques’s bench.

“Uncle Jacques, tell us how you make designs without a pattern, how you make a new design each day, a new one for each new tray.”

“That’s a hard question, boys, very hard. Ask old man Durand.”

Old man Durand was pounding on his chisel with a wooden mallet. When the boys stood in front of him, he looked up and wiped the perspiration from his forehead. His face split up in a great smile. He took his pipe from his mouth and held it in his left hand.

“Old man Durand, tell us this: How do you make a design without a pattern, and how do a you make a different design every day?”

“That’s a hard question, boys, very, very hard.”

“Yes, old man Durand, but you must tell us. We want to know.”

“Well, boys, it’s like this: you have to put yourself into the design.”

“Ah, you’re teasing us, old man Durand. That’s a riddle. How can a boy put himself into a design?”

“Ah! It’s a riddle indeed, but I’m not teasing you. If I walk down by the beach on my way to the shop in the morning and see the tiny boats putting out to sea, that makes a picture in my mind. If I see a hungry beggar, that leaves a picture too. Some pictures make me glad to be living. Some make me weep inside. Some make my heart sad. And when I’m glad to be living, trees and birds and leaves look one bright color to me. When I weep inside, they look different. Well, I don’t think about this when I sit down to make my design, I just sing or whistle a tune and carve away with my knife or chisel. But what I am inside makes the design. The design is a picture of the way I feel. It sounds strange, but it is just like that. The design is me. I put my sad feeling and my glad feeling into the design. It’s just like making a song.”

“It’s wonderful,” Popo said.

“It sounds just like old folks, but I like it,” Marcel said.

“And when people look at your design,” old man Durand went on, “when people see the picture, they will just see trees and boats and flowers and animals and such things, but they will feel as you felt when you made the design. That’s the fine part. That is really the only way that people can every know how other people feel.

That’s quite a philosophical discourse on aesthetics for a children’s book, and I’m sure that Bontemps and Hughes must have delighted in offering that to the children they were targeting with the novel.

This novel seems to me a landmark in children’s literature. Bontemps and Hughes take a typical underclass Haitian family – the bulk of the nation – and they lay out the simple facts of everyday life. They don’t glorify it, condemn it or excuse it; just present it. I do think their job was a bit easier that it would be today since the gap between the rather typical American family of the early 1930s was not so significantly different from the Haitian family. Nonetheless, the magnificent economy of detail and marvelous choices of images to present, give the reader a very rich and warm view of Haitian life.

I think that any adult who picked up the book today would be delighted with it and recognize so much; many things in Haitian life just haven’t changed that much in the intervening 70 years.

The 1993 edition has an introduction and afterword by Arnold Rampersad, and I was rather disgusted with the afterword. Rampersad goes on and on about Hughes’ left-wing politics and such, all quite interesting history. However, it’s part of an elaborate argument to excuse why the book is relatively non-political, excusing Bontemps and Hughes on the grounds of economic necessity (which he suggests was forced upon them) and tastes of the time. But good grief, this is a CHILDREN’S STORY. And it is just beautiful and touching as it exists; simple, with the sole exception of things more than everyday living is the lovely discourse on aesthetics. And while I found the Rampersad addition interesting biographically about both Hughes and Bontemps, I was quite disgusted with the nonsense of his believing Hughes needed some excuse for not mounting political propaganda in the book. I think Hughes just had more sense of what he had created and did exactly what he wanted.

If you’ve never read this wonderful book, find a copy and do. I think reading it to children would be a lovely experience.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu


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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu