Thursday, February 14, 2013

Book Review: The Farming of Bones

Anyone who knows me well, knows how much I love to travel—especially to the Dominican Republic. I visit on average twice a year and if God willing, my husband and I will live out the rest of our days there once we retire. So when a colleague recommended that I read the Dominican/Haitian-themed novel, The Farming of Bones by Edwidge Danticat, I couldn’t resist. A lyrical story set in 1937 in the most beautiful place on Earth? Sign me up!

From the start, Amabelle, the main character hypnotizes you. Her story is heart-wrenching; at age 8 she sees her parents drowning to their untimely death in the Massacre River. Rescued by a wealthy Dominican family, she is raised alongside their daughter, Valencia, and later becomes her maid. Years later, Amabelle solidifies her role as an integral part of the family when she singlehandedly delivers Valencia’s twins.  Rafael is named after Generalissimo Trujillo, the president of Dominican Republic. Much to his family’s approval, his skin is as white as the Conquistadores traced back to 18 century Spain. Roaslinda, however, is bronze-toned much to their dismay. Her “dirt behind the ears” skin is an all too unwelcome reality of how racial mixing can taint the bloodline.

As whispers of racial slaughter float in the Caribbean wind, Amabelle ignores the rumors. In an effort to “whiten” the population, the president orders that Haitians are to be massacred by Dominican soldiers and civilians. They are given a menu of three choices of death: stabbed by the needle point of the soldiers’ rifles, climb the mountains and fall to their death into the ocean, or to be butchered with machetes by Dominican civilians. “Don’t even waste a bullet on them,” it is rumored that the President stated. It can’t be real, Amabelle brushes it off. Besides, her life’s path is already set. When her lover, Sebastien, finishes cutting sugar cane in the field at the end of the season, they will marry and move to Haiti.

But when the rumors surface as reality, Amabelle is forced to flee the place she’s called home since she was a child and return to Haiti. In the midst of her escape, Amabelle loses Sebastien. Here, the plot becomes a perfectly woven battle of self-survival mixed with the search for her true love—wanted dead or alive. Along the way, Danticat infuses terror in her every written word as we see the persecution and slaughter of a culture simply because of the darkness of their skin.

Danticat takes the reader on an emotional rollercoaster. We follow Amabelle through her joys. We mourn all that she has lost. We suffer with her as we feel the indescribable pain of thousands dying around her. But most of all, we applaud Amabelle’s courage in the end to stare in the face of danger, unflinching and boldly overcoming its infectious grips.

I must admit that when I finished reading the book, I was overcome with anger. How could this happen in a country that I call my second home? The same country that embraces me the minute I sink my feet into the crystal sand?

 I am immediately reminded of Rosa Park’s words, “We must correct the mistakes of our past.” The Dominican Republic that I know today is not the Dominican Republic of 1937. Like many countries around the world, it holds an era in history in which I am sure they seek to correct, learn from, and move forward to propel them in the right direction.

I am thankful that the Dominican Republic is the beautiful sea of creams, browns, and blacks that it is today. This is the Dominican Republic that I know—a place with a dark past, yet with a future that outshines everything else.

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