Towards the end of Edwidge Danticat’s new novel The Farming of Bones, a man says “Famous men never truly die… It is only those nameless and faceless who vanish like smoke in the early morning air.” The time is 1937, the place the island which Haiti and The Dominican Republic share. Through the eyes of the narrator, a Haitian woman named Amabelle working as a domestic servant in the Dominican Republic, we have just seen scores of Haitians massacred in an outbreak of pure xenophobic malevolence orchestrated by the Domincan Republic’s leader, General Rafael Trujillo. None of those killed is anyone famous, nearly all the slaughtered are poor Haitians working as cheap labor in the neighboring country, but Amabelle’s story serves to refute those words spoken about the nameless and faceless of the earth. In this book, they are remembered, and in her story they do have names and faces.
The Farming of Bones is a term the Haitian field workers use to describe their life of cutting cane. While Amabelle is fortunate enough to be working as a household servant to a wealthy Dominican family, most of her friends toil for the sugar mill owners. They have left Haiti and come to the Dominican Republic because their job prospects at home are even bleaker than in their adopted country. And so this book is very much about exile, what it means to live in one place and yearn for another.
Amabelle’s lover Sebastian says, “Sometimes the people in the fields, when they’re tired and angry, they say we’re an orphaned people….They say we are the burnt crud at the bottom of the pot. They say some people don’t belong anywhere and that’s us. I say we are a group of vwayaje, wayfarers.”
Not only the poor and desperate for work are living in exile; so is the patriach of the household Amabelle lives in. Born in Spain to a comfortable family, he has somehow landed in the Caribbean, having fought “for colonies with Los Estados Unidos” in the Spanish-American War of 1898. Now, he sits every night by his radio listening to bulletins from Spain about the Civil War raging there. And Amabelle can sympathize with him. She says, “Like me, Papi had been displaced from his native land; he felt himself the orphaned child of a now orphaned people. Perhaps this was why he often seemed more kindly disposed to the strangers for whom this side of the island had not always been home.”
Exile increases the poignancy of memory, and nearly everyone in this book is obsessed with remembering things. Amabelle constantly thinks of her parents who drowned in a river when she was young. She sees them in dreams when they come alive again for her, talks of them to her lover who in turn talks to her of his childhood memories of Haiti. Poor though they are, there is a sense of community among all the displaced Haitians, and one of their priests, Father Romain, emphasizes how important this is: “In his sermons to the Haitian congregants of the valley he often reminded everyone of common ties: language, foods, history, carnival, songs, tales, and prayers. His creed was one of memory, how remembering–though sometimes painful–can make you strong.”
Not strong enough, though. Violence erupts very quickly, about halfway through the book, and Amabelle has to flee. Along with four or five others, she abruptly leaves everything behind and treks through the mountains to try to make her way back to Haiti. It is a journey that will be perilous and bring much grief to Amabelle…
Sad and powerful, The Farming of Bones is a beautifully written book. Edwidge Danticat has an effortless style that seems as natural as a flowing stream. Her simple but sensuous language brings her tropical world to life; one can feel the heat, see the luxuriant colors, taste the spicy foods. The tone of her narrator remains level throughout, and this understated directness, even in the face of brutality and horror, adds to the story’s effectiveness. Her Amabelle is a flesh and blood woman, no mouthpiece for any kind of cant. We share in her joys and sorrows, her dreams, memories, and day to day struggles. Edwidge Danticat has chosen to write about a real event, the Haitian massacre of 1937, from the point of view of one “small” person and from this has etched an indelible work of art. Highly recommended.