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Haitian Holocaust

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The Farming of Bones
By Edwidge Danticat
Soho Press; 312 pages; $23

Love on the banks of the Massacre

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

WHAT DOES IT MEAN that six million Jewish people died in the European Holocaust? Six million has never had a meaning for me; I cannot grasp the number. I have never seen six million people together in one spot, ever, either in person or in photographs. How can I understand the horror of the Holocaust if I cannot fathom the number of persons it took from the face of the earth?

But once, I was sitting in the kitchen of a friend, talking about an article I had written that mentioned my grandparents, and she looked at me with a small sadness and said, "But you know, of course, that I have no memory of my own grandparents, not at all. My parents had to leave them in Germany when they escaped across the border. They died there, all four of them, though we do not know where, or when, or how. I have nothing of them. Not a memory. Not a picture. Not a single letter, or a piece of jewelry, or a bit of cloth. Nothing."

Six million had little meaning for me. But nothing--nothing was enormous.

The best of our journalists and novelists have always understood this fact, that the human mind can most easily absorb human tragedy in the smallest of bites.

I once read that on a single day in September in 1862, some 23,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or went missing in action along the banks of a quiet little creek called Antietam near the town of Sharpsburg, in Maryland. Twenty-three thousand? No, my impression of that day will always come from Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, in the image of the mortally wounded soldier who adamantly refused to die until he could find himself a peaceful spot in the woods. That is horror enough.

Haitian novelist Edwidge Danticat understands this human phenomenon well, and so in The Farming of Bones, her second novel, she takes an enormous Depression-era Haitian tragedy and serves it to her readers in portions so small, but so intensely seasoned, that many will carry around the taste of it for the rest of their lives, and their understanding of Haitians and Dominicans will never be the same.

A WEB SITE HISTORY of the Dominican Republic describes the event in stark terms: "One of [Dominican dictator Raphael] Trujillo's most notorious acts was committed against his island neighbor, Haiti. Trujillo had always made it clear that he held racist ideas and considered the black-skinned Haitians to be inferior. In 1937 he took action to resolve this problematic issue by giving the order to his army to massacre all Haitians found to be in the Dominican Republic. Estimates of as many as 17,000 unarmed Haitian men, women and children were slaughtered in a blood bath of violence, particularly around the border region of the town of Dajabon and the aptly named Massacre River."

Danticat takes us into Dajabon and along the banks of the Massacre through the story of Amabelle, a young Haitian woman who has worked as a servant in a Dominican household all her life. Amabelle reminds us of Margaret Mitchell's Scarlett O'Hara; she sees the signs of a great confrontation swirling around her, but though it troubles her much, she does not at first see how it will eventually affect her life. Much of the first half of the novel, in fact, takes up instead the love story between the quiet, gentle Amabelle and Sebastien, a Haitian canecutter who lives and works on a nearby plantation:

"I close the door and lock out the tame night breeze that barely reaches my bare body, naked because Sebastien has made me believe that it is like a prayer to lie unclothed alone the way one came out of the womb, but mostly because I am hoping to feel the sweat gather between the cement floor and the hollow in my back, so that when I rise up, there will be a flood of perspiration to roll down between my buttocks, down the front and back and between my thighs, down to my knees, shins, ankles, and toes, so that there will not be a drop of liquid left in me with which to cry."

Danticat makes us see and feel the love and the longing of Amabelle so much that when the violence finally breaks like a storm over the novel and Amabelle attempts to slip through Dajabon to escape the massacre, it is as if we are hearing the story from the mouth of our own mother or daughter. The terrible fright and pain of the mob violence is as vivid as anything I have ever read.

Danticat is a writer of tremendous narrative ability and poetic vision. When Amabelle explains, "My skin felt prickly, as if my blood had been put in a pot to boil and then poured back into me," I am forced to stop and close the book and think on that a while. The novel balances delicately, and exquisitely, between the events leading up to the massacre and Amabelle's thoughts and reminiscences of her childhood and long-dead parents. It is a novel that deserves a special spot on the shelf, the space reserved for books you want to read again. The space reserved for books that mean something.

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From the October 1-7, 1998 issue of Metro.

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