Edwidge Danticat: The Farming of Bones

Edwidge Danticat
The Farming of Bones
Soho Press

"ETHNIC CLEANSING" IS an evasive new label for an age-old horror. Recent instances have garnered global condemnation--some might say global complicity, too--but history shows that the memory of these events is short-lived for those not involved. Haitian-born writer Edwidge Danticat illuminates this amnesia with her latest novel, The Farming of Bones. Decades after the 1937 mass murder of Haitian people by Dominicans, memories of the event have faded to a haze. And so Danticat, who at 25 is already author of two acclaimed books, has brought the events of that time back to life, telling the story through the eyes of a survivor, a young woman named Amabelle Desir.

Amabelle lives two different nightmares: one at night as she dreams of her parents' death in a flood; and one waking as the people she has worked for as a servant since that flood become part of a plot to rid the country of Haitians, rather than further assimilate them into the island they've shared for years. Many Haitians, including Amabelle's fiancé Sebastian, came to the Dominican Republic to work for the wealthy Dominican sugarcane farmers. The cane, called "bones" by the workers, creates a brutal way of life: A few years of this backbreaking, skin-flaying crop uses a person up. And so Amabelle and Sebastian decide to return to Haiti to start their lives anew. They form their plan a few weeks too late, however, and become separated as they try to cross the river home during a night of mayhem, as Dominicans move across the land with machetes in an extermination campaign.

Danticat spins out her tale slowly, beginning in a quieter, happier time, when Amabelle is friends--almost--with the white woman she works for, and meets her lover at night after he comes in from the fields. Soon, however, Amabelle's days turn into a dark, terrifying world, in which people are less trustworthy than the small signs she witnesses: The death of a baby parallels the hit-and-run death of a cane worker; a bracelet of grains helps a mother identify her mutilated children. Laden with imagery and symbolism, Danticat's island is a lovely place blooming with life as well as the site of a sickening lapse of humanity, one that seems familiar with its parallels to more recent genocides.

Amabelle crosses the river that killed her parents, and begins a new life on the other side, but she lives among ghosts, harboring the empty hope that those missing but not witnessed dead might yet walk back into town seeking friends. Survival is a small victory, as Amabelle finds that to live through the massacre is to never recover fully. To forget would be the greater loss.

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