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7330: Review of Madison Bell's "Master of the Croassroads" (fwd)
From: Jean Jean-Pierre <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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
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.