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7330: Review of Madison Bell's "Master of the Croassroads" (fwd)

From: Jean Jean-Pierre <jean@acd-pc.com>

                    Copyright 2001 The Denver Post Corporation
                                The Denver Post

                       March 11, 2001 Sunday 2D EDITION

 Leading to LIBERTY Haitian history volume worth the wait

By Michael Swindle, Special to The Denver Post,
By Madison Smartt Bell

It has been a five-year wait for the second novel in Madison  Smartt
Bell's historical trilogy about the Haitian revolution, but  'Master of
the Crossroads' is a bountiful reward for our patience.

The first novel, 'All Souls Rising,' began with the bloody  slave revolt
in 1791, led by the voodoo priest Boukman, and closed  in 1794. 'Master
of the Crossroads' resumes the story in that same  year, with the rise
from obscurity of a black leader known by his slave name, Toussaint

Nominally the subordinate of the black Generals Jean-Francois  and
Biassou, Toussaint issued a bold statement 'from a small fort  in the
mountains called Camp Turel, to the effect that he intended to lead his
people to liberty.'

This Proclamation of Camp Turel, as it came to be known, was  issued on
the same day that France's representative in the colony  proclaimed the
abolition of slavery. It was also inthis  proclamation that 'he used,
for the first time in any written  document, the name Toussaint

That name was filled with significance. Toussaint, 'The  Opening.'
Opening the way to freedom for the slaves in Haiti. And  though
Toussaint was a devout and conservative Catholic, he knew  his chosen
name had deeper meaning for the Africans he would lead  to liberty. He
meant to convey to them that Legba, the powerful  voodoo loa, or spirit,
was working through his hands.

Legba is the first spirit called upon in voodoo ceremonies,  to
facilitate the entrance of the other loa. Legba is the  gatekeeper, the
opener of the door between the physical and the  metaphysical. He is the
Master of Passageways, and the Master of  the Crossroads. Hence the
book's title.

All of the wonderfully drawn auxiliary fictional characters  from 'All
Souls Rising' are back here: the extraordinary French  doctor Antoine
Hebert, confidant of Toussaint, and Nanon, his  mulattresse lover and
mother of his child; Elise Thibodet, the  doctor's sister, married to
the swashbuckling smuggler Xavier  Tocquet; the evil mulatto Choufleur;
the coquettish Isabelle  Cigny; Michel and Claudine Arnaud, haunted by
their past cruelties  as slaveholders; and the loyal French Capt.

While all these characters and their stories are fascinating,  the most
intriguing is Riau, the sensitive former slave and  marron, through
whose eyes we see a large part of the action.  (Marrons were slaves who
escaped and lived in freedom deep in the  interior of Haiti.)
Independent, intelligent and literate, he has  risen to the rank of
captain and is one of Toussaint's closest  confidants.

'Sometimes I would use pieces of sharpened charcoal to copy  words and
sentences,' Riau tells us, 'so that my skill in writing,  which
Toussaint had first taught me, would grow larger     When I  copied the
letters to the paper, I was altogether I - myself here,  the words and
paper there, and the whiteman language filled up all  the space inside
my head, but I knew it was an act of power.'

Wisely, Bell only works minimally from inside Toussaint's  head, for as
many characters say in many ways, 'no one in his camp  had ever plumbed
the full depth of his thinking.' Fortunately, the  general dictated - he
could read and write, but his spelling was  bad - voluminous reports of
his military activities, and  voluminous letters.

'Master of the Crossroads' covers the period of Toussaint's  rise and
triumphs from 1794 through 1798. That was a turbulent  time, to say the
least, as the British, having been called in to  protect the French
royalists and slave owners, are driven from  Haiti. The Spanish also are
vanquished, and after a civil war,  Toussaint emerges as the supreme

Weighing in at more than 700 pages, this second installment  is not
lacking in detail. Bell also includes a glossary, a  chronology of
historical events, original letters and documents in  French, and a
listing of the 110 classifications of races in  colonial Sainte

Michael Swindle is a freelance writer whose book reviews have  appeared
in The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.