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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..

Bob Corbett