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#3845: PAPA TOUSSAINT. Novel by list-member C. Richard Gillespie. Some review comments by Bob Corbett
PAPA TOUSSAINT by C. Richard Gillespie. New York: toExcel, 1998.
ISBN: 1-58348-124-9. ( http://www.toexcel.com )
Some comments by Bob Corbett
Back in 1991, 200th anniversary of the beginning of the Haitian
Revolution, I was still publishing a printed magazine about Haiti called
STRETCH. I decided to do a series of essays on the Revolution and did.
At the end of the final one I made a promise to my readers which I never
kept. In a section on "Follow-up Essays" I said: "Will the real
Toussaint Louverture please stand up. Historians of Haiti usually
choose sides. Some say Toussaint was humane, a brilliant strategist, a
mover of people, creator of the nation -- the first Haitian saint, a
hero. Others see a Machiavellian schemer out to aggrandize is own
position no matter what happened to his brother and sister Haitians.
Again, I'll try to sort out the argument and shed some light on the WHO
of Toussaint Louverture."
I never delivered that essay (nor the other two I also promised.) Thing
leads on to thing as they say. However, I remained intrigued by the
person of Toussaint Louverture. All of the non-fiction biographical
treatments I read tended toward one hard line or the other and never
persuaded me. I began to hope that the freer world of historical
fiction might allow authors more freedom to deal with the complexities
without have to grind toward a particular pre-chosen political stance.
One of those attempts to place Toussaint on center stage is in the novel
from list member Madison Smartt Bell (ALL SOULS RISING). I wasn't as
taken with Madison's Toussaint as I had hoped to be and raised those
questions in my review of that book. Since I have learned that ALL
SOULS RISING is the first in a planned trilogy and that Toussaint will
figure centrally in the remaining two volumes. I look forward to their
Recently, however, my search and nearly obsessive reading on this the
topic of Toussaint was rewarded by another book from a member of the
Corbett list, C. Richard Gillespie, or Dick Gillespie as he calls himself
on list. His novel PAPA TOUSSAINT is a simply brilliant treatment of
Toussaint, one of the most persuasive I have yet read.
The story is told by Placide, Toussaint's adopted son. The novel opens
in 1816 in France where he lives in exile. Placide has decided to write
the story of his father so that history may know true and full story.
Gillespie skillfully and grippingly weaves Placide's Toussaint into life
for us over the next 383 pages. This is a novel, it has all the virtues
of the novelist's freedom to get inside his main character, revealing his
interpreted notions of the thoughts, feelings, motivations and dreams of
the character. However, it is also an historical novel written by a
person dedicated to his title character and to a serious notion of
scholarship. Gillespie is and has been a dedicated student of the
Revolution and, especially, the person of Toussaint Louverture. After
the novel has ended Gillespie presents a detailed bibliography of sources
in both English and French which is most impressive. The novel was
finished several years ago, and I must acknowledge a deep gratitude to
Dick Gillespie who donated MOUNDS of his source materials to my library,
which alone constitutes the largest bulk of what I have on the Haitian
Revolution, which is massive.
I will not try to answer the question: who is Gillespie's Toussaint? Nor
will I attempt a critical assessment of that vision. This unusual
critical silence is for two reasons: to the latter task, Gillespie's
Toussaint is simply richer and more detailed and developed than I am
capable of assessing. Right or wrong about his Toussaint, Gillespie
knows much more than I and I would be doing the reader a disservice to
try to evaluate it from my position of lesser knowledge. But even if I
were Gillespie's peer in this area, which I am not, I wouldn't want to
spoil it for you. Gillespie's Toussaint is as intriguing in the
development and unfolding as in the final picture. I don't want to spoil
that for you. The book would make a simply marvelous summer read and
I'll leave that treat to you rather than wrap up the prize in these comments.
That said, however, I must raise one concern I have about the success of
Gillespie's fictional vehicle, the story told by Toussaint's adopted son,
Placide. In many ways the fictional device is brilliant. Placide is
close to his father, often with and around him, privy to some of his
inner thoughts and revelations. He is a novelist's ideal as narrator.
Nonetheless, I worry that Gillespie gets too carried away with the
omniscience of Placide. Even with his personal closeness, physical and
emotionally, to his father, even with Placide's contact with those
closest to his father's work, Placide just seems to me to know too much.
At times it is as though Gillespie forgets that Placide is OUTSIDE and is
not himself Toussaint, and thus is not quite privy to everything
Toussaint did, thought and felt.
But this is a small quibble. Perhaps I am being too demanding of
Gillespie. You will have to decide.
I would think that none who read this book, from the most knowledgeable
scholars to those who know little and have only heard the most
generalized stories of Toussaint's life, will be disappointed in
Gillespie's tour-de-force in revealing his view of "the real Toussaint."
The novel is, as novel, a gripping tale. It is meticulously historical.
In the end Gillespie stands tall as a most important interpreter of the
character and person of Toussaint Louverture. Has he actually made the
real Toussaint stand up? Well, let's discuss that after you've read the
Dick Gillespie, in addition to being a list-member (after reading all our
mail, who has time for any other life?), is professor emeritus at Towson
University in Baltimore. He founded the academic theater program there
and is an actor, theater director and award-winning playwright. He has
an earlier book THE JAMES ADAMS FLOATING THEATRE, a history of the
showboat which served as Edna Ferber's model for the show boat in her
novel, later made into the famous musical and motion picture. PAPA
TOUSSAINT is Dick's first novel. But now, Dick, about the character and
person of Dessalines..