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Posted July 5, 2001

First published in

The Farming of Bones
By Edwidge Danticart
List Price: $12.95
Pages: 312
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0140280499
Publisher: Penguin USA
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About this book                                                                                    
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 the slaughter.                                                                                                                                                                                              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., the scholarly journal of democracy and human rights
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