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Posted July 5, 2001
First published in readinggroupguides.com
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|Testimony: An Introduction to The Farming of Bones
|"His name is Sebastien Onius. Sometimes this
|is all I know. My back aches now in all those
|places that he claimed for himself, arches of
|bare skin that belonged to him, pockets where
|the flesh remains fragile, seared like unhealed
|burns where each fallen scab uncovers a deeper
The Dominican Republic and Haiti. Two countries sharing the same island - one poor, the
other poorer. For decades, Haitians attempting to escape their country's abject poverty
have streamed into the Dominican Republic to work as laborers in the sugarcane fields or
as domestic help. In 1937, longstanding hostility between the two countries erupted, and
Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo Molina decreed the slaughter of all Haitians on Dominican
land. This is the historical backdrop for The Farming of Bones.
Amabelle, the heroine of Edwidge Danticat's haunting new novel, and her lover Sebastien
are two such Haitian laborers who find themselves caught in the massacre of 1937. Amabelle
- orphaned at a young age when her parents drowned in the river that separates the two
countries - is a housekeeper for Valencia and her husband General Pico, who is supremely
devoted to Generalissimo Trujillo. Sebastien cuts cane, the act from which Danticat draws
the title of her book. It is called "the farming of the bones" because after a
day in the searing heat of the fields, anticipating snakes and rats, brushing up against
the razor sharp edges of the cane, the workers find their skin is shredded, their bones
closer to the surface than the day before.
Indeed, The Farming of Bones abounds with complex shades of meaning. In the first few
chapters of the novel, Amabelle helps Senora Valencia give birth to twins. When the doctor
finally arrives to check on the newborn's health, he says to Amabelle, "many of us
start out as twins in the belly and do away with the other." Once again, Danticat has
deftly teased out the duality of language. Haiti and the Dominican Republic, vying for
resources on the same island, are much like twins in the same belly. The most horrifying
example of language play in the novel is, of course, the treatment of the word perejil, or
parsley. In order to prove to soldiers that they are Dominican, a person must be able to
trill "i" in the word for parsley. To fail this test is to become a victim of
While the story that Edwidge Danticat tells - that of Amabelle's journey back to Haiti
during the massacre - is nightmarish indeed, it is undeniably transcendent. Amabelle's
erotic dreams about Sebastien break through the carnage, and the narrative is enriched by
profound mediations on life, love and world disrupted by life's violent capriciousness.
Just days before the massacre begins Sebastien and Amabelle - lovers who have just begun
to help one another heal from earlier military mayhem, Amabelle is left to wonder whether
or not he has been killed, and to contemplate love's resiliency. Never knowing her lover's
fate, she struggles to discover peace. She seeks respite in the relationship with
Sebastien's friend Yves, searches out Sebastien's mother, Man Denise, who is a shell of a
woman without her son and daughter. Man Rapadou, Yves' mother, is a pillar of strength.
Still, she too is "farming" her own bones, digging up and and confronting demons
from years past - Danticat vividly depicts the strangeness of the survivor's plight - the
gaps left by unanswered questions, the dreams, the lost time. One must wonder: is Amabelle
a survivor, or did she perish at the river along with her fellow travelers, with the poor
cripple Tibon, with Odette and Wilner, and the countless others who, unable to trill the
"i" in perejil, were pushed from cliffs into the abyss? Indeed, how does one
survive? For Amabelle, living becomes an act of healing. Each stitch she sews into a piece
of fabric brings her closer to the word survival. And she expounds the power of testimony.
Near the end of the novel, Amabelle listens to a Haitian tour guide discuss Henry I's
citadel. "Famous men never truly die," he says, "It is only those nameless
and faceless who vanish like smoke into the early morning air."
You do not die if someone remembers your name. And if there is one thing that Amabelle
passionately resolves to accomplish in the aftermath of the massacre, it is remembering
names. For if she forgets, she knows that all of their stories will be like "a fish
with no tail, a dress with no hem, a drop with no fall, a body in the sunlight with no
shadow." She will remember names. Most of all, she will remember Sebastien's.
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