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#1823: Haitian Cane Cutters: Carline comments

From: BriceWebb, Carline <CBriceWebb@oas.org>

To the Haitian cutters who work the Dominican sugar fields, cane life is
travay tè pou zo, Athe farming of bones.@ 

 The year is 1937, and Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo is in power in the
Dominican Republic. Valencia, wife of Pico, an officer in Trujillo=s army,
has just given birth to twins, a boy and a girl, attended only by her
Haitian maid Amabelle, who has lived in her household since both women were
children. In his haste to get home to see his new babies, Pico tears
recklessly down the road and kills a young Haitian sugarcane cutter named
Joel. Sebastien, Amabelle=s lover and Joel=s friend, swears that night that
after the present cane season is over, he will never again Afarm bones.@ 

 The Haitians, who are ostracized socially and only tolerated in menial
positions because they meet an economic need, call themselves orphans, and
many of them are just that. Amabelle lost her parents in a flood. Sebastien
lost his father in a hurricane. But even those with families and roots in
the country are treated like strays. The owners of the cane mills routinely
keep their workers= papers, without which the cutters= children have access
only to limited education. Worse still, many cutters are injured or
mutilated while working. One has lost fingers; another has a gash in her
cheek. These men and women lead gloomy lives, and yet they derive strength
from their traditions and from one another.  Joel=s death spurs a host of
rumors. Word spreads of murders of Haitians in distant towns. The cutters
believe Trujillo is planning a massive move against Haitians and that Joel=s
death is part of a larger plan. Amabelle rejects such notions. She knows
many Dominicans to be kind. Valencia is a sensitive woman whose compassion
for Kongo, Joel=s grieving father, is sincere. Don Ignacio, Valencia=s
father, is a Spaniard who saw action in the Spanish-American War and has
learned to detest violence. He shows his sorrow for Joel=s death by trying
to comfort Kongo and offering to pay for the boy=s funeral.  Pico, however,
is so calculating and ambitious that he names the male twin for the
dictator. However, as if in retribution for his father=s transgressions, the
baby dies. Shortly afterward, the Haitians= worst nightmare comes true.
Trujillo gives the order to push the foreigners out, and Pico, commanding a
band of thugs, mows down hordes of people and arrests scores moreCamong them
Sebastien. Amabelle, brutally separated from her lover, undertakes the
harrowing journey back to Haiti. Along the way, she witnesses murders,
cruelty, starvation, and despair. She hears stories of massacres and mass
brutality. Yet, she forges ahead in spite of her injuries, buoyed by the
certitude that on the other side of the border she will find Sebastien and
his sister Mimi. In one chilling scene, Trujillo=s supporters torture
Haitians while the Generalissimo prays tranquilly in church. 

Once Amabelle is in Haiti, the mother of Yves, Sebastien=s friend, takes her
in, and one lonely night the two young people even find refuge in each
other=s arms. However, their love is not to be. Amabelle and Yves are
separated as well as united by the guilt borne of their act of betrayal.
Amabelle stays on in Yves=s home, yet dreams of marrying Sebastien. When she
locates Father Romain, the priest who had tried to save Haitian workers in
the Dominican Republic, her spirits soar because he is proof that survivors
exist. Yet, even Sebastien=s mother has given up hope.  Still, Amabelle
waits. The days turn into years and the years, into decades. With Trujillo=s
death, Amabelle ventures back to the Dominican RepublicCalthough the trip is
riskyCand finds everything different, yet strangely the same. Pico has
become a top government official, but he and Valencia live apart. Valencia,
caught between her sympathy for the Haitians and her loyalty to her husband,
struggles to make sense of Pico=s participation in the dictatorship. She
still takes in Haitian orphans and trains them to be housemaids, but she has
abandoned her illusions. RosalindaCValencia=s daughterChas married. The
Abeautiful rose@ has flourished. 

Throughout the novel bone imagery reinforces the sense of imminent death.
Children play with goat bones that function almost as dominoes, while the
cutters Afarm bones@ in the fields. In the massacre, the stench of human
flesh burning to the bone permeates the air. On her horrific trip back to
Haiti, Amabelle, starved and abused, turns almost into skin and bones, and
more than one of her companions reminds her of a skeleton.  However,
Danticat softens her often grisly narrative by intercalating beautiful and
poetic dream sequences in which Amabelle sees herself reunited with her
parents, with Sebastien, or with friends lost during the violence. Haitian
writer Edwidge Danticat has written a gripping novel that exposes an aspect
of Dominican-Haitian history rarely represented in Latin American fiction.
In spite of the desolation and wretchedness of the people Danticat depicts,
The Farming of Bones is an inspiring book. It is a hymn to human resilience,
faith, and hope in the face of overwhelming adversity.