Edwidge Danticat’s “The Farming of Bones”–There’s no such thing as a small massacre

Ours is a time in which people of conscience are becoming more and more aware of the cruelties of wars and “police actions” which have been fought across the globe from times so far back we have lost count of them, and often it’s the “big” conflicts which have been memorialized, the battles which have resulted in more deaths in sheer numbers which are remembered and moralized on most.  In modern times, some of these are the French Revolution, the American Civil War, WWI, WWII, fighting in Korea, the Vietnam War, the wars in Sarajevo, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan.  Many of these wars are remembered at least in the North American continent because the United States has been involved, and the United States, to whatever degree right or wrong, sees itself as a “major player,” and often people in the United States either ignore or are not aware of conflicts in which they play mainly a passing role.  But in order to realize that there is no such thing as a “small” war or massacre, one has only to understand from the testimonies from writers around the world that cruelty is an absolute, not something of numbers and degrees, which when it is employed wreaks havoc and shock and causes a maximum of human suffering regardless of how many people exactly were persecuted or died.  One such writer who leaves vital and pertinent testimony is Edwidge Danticat, in her novel The Farming of Bones, a book about the 1937 “unrest” between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, in which Haitians were massacred and brutalized in their thousands by the Dominican Republican dictator Trujillo’s forces and also by civilians.  I call it “unrest” ironically, because it was much more than that, but the “Yankis” who are referred to only as a former interfering force in the book would have called it so, from their perspective of “big” wars and conflicts.  They are merely a shadow in this book, which is upclose and personal when it comes to the characters who are affected.

The book begins with a quote which is not only thematic, but also becomes part of the plot structure in a later incarnation of event.  The quote is from Judges 12:4-6, describing how in a war between the men of Gilead and the Ephraimites, the men of Gilead held the fords, and tested all passersby by their ability to say the word “Shibboleth.”  If instead they were unable to pronounce the word and said “Sibboleth,” they were killed.  The Bible records that 40,000 were killed in this manner, and though the number is not the issue, it shows the extent to which a by-word can be applied and misapplied in a world of danger and cruelty.

But for at least half the book The Farming of Bones, the setting is in the Dominican Republic, in which the French and Kreyol-speaking immigrants from Haiti are employed as house servants, workers in the cane fields, and otherwise “peasant” labor, while the Spanish-influenced Dominicans are the gentry and aristocracy of the area.  And at least half the book tells the story, both in the present and through flashbacks, of Amabelle Désir, a daughter of herb healers and an employee of the Duarte household, her daily life in the Dominican Republic as a second-class citizen, and her love for Sebastien Onius, her man, who comes to her at night sometimes.

The gentility with which the two treat each other is an indirect comment upon the harshness of Pico Duarte, Amabelle’s employer, and his relationship with his wife, Valencia, with whom Amabelle was raised after her parents died in a flood and she was left an orphan.  Sebastien lives at a distance from Amabelle, and one night he wants her to undress and they simply sit in the dark, for as he tells her, “It is good for you to learn and trust that I am near you even when you can’t place the balls of your eyes on me.”  By contrast, Pico leaves his wife in childbirth and goes to support the Generalissimo in various actions, returning to see the babies (twins), but leaving again after the boy baby dies, and not perhaps valuing the girl baby as much.  As Amabelle says of Sebastien, “When he’s not there, I’m afraid I know no one, and no one knows me.”  Again by contrast, Valencia, her “milk sister,” is supported by her whole family, her father “Papi” (Don Ignacio), his estate, the local doctor and priests, and the servants.

When word first comes that the Dominicans under Trujillo are killing Haitians (who have been employed by them and who are currently living in the Dominican Republic, where the first part of the story is set), Amabelle does not believe it to be true, and many around her also think of it as a rumor.  She finally makes plans to meet up with Sebastien in order to go back to Haiti by cart with the local priests and the doctor, all of whom are thinking of helping to get Haitians safely across the river and the mountains back to Haiti.  The sad results of the delay with which the original news was greeted by many, however, have their part to play, and it is in a company mostly of strangers that Amabelle finally leaves the place which has been her home for many years.

When the group Amabelle is escaping with reach a town nearer to their destination, where they are hoping to meet up with others, they are greeted by a rowdy and violent crowd of Dominicans, who “try” them by the verbal system with the word “perejil,” or “parsley,” a common herb to both parts of the island.  When they can only say “pesi,” they are brutalized, though in fact their tormenters already have made their minds up about them in advance.  Amabelle thinks that she could say the word the “right” way if she had time to gather her thoughts, but she isn’t given the chance.

The rest of the story deals with Amabelle’s life without Sebastien, on the Haitian side of the border, except for the end, some years later, when she bribes a driver to drive her back across the border.  She goes to visit Señora Valencia and hear about her daughter Rosalinda, who is now married, and also meets Sylvie, the current servant.  It is now that she mentally revisits the past and realizes that she and Valencia were really ever only strangers to each other, for all that they played together as children, their different parts and roles in the household of Papi holding them apart.  Finally, she goes to try and find a cave which she associates with Sebastien, but has no success in finding it for certain.  Much of this novel is in fact the mourning for people and things lost through wars, battles, conflicts, actions, hostilities, and quarrels.  As Edwidge Danticat writes on her last page, “And the very last words, last on the page but always first in my memory, must be offered to those who died in the massacre of 1937, to those who survived to testify, and to the constant struggle of those who still toil in the cane fields.”  Truly, there are no small massacres; numbers are not what we should be concentrating on when we discuss genocide and political murder, but the sheer inhumanity of the manner in which we often use other people, and the quick escalation of hatred which threatens to sink us all into obliquity, both victims and persecutors.

Danticat’s book is simultaneously a beautifully written testiment to human survival, which persists though the human spirit is insulted and damaged by its encounter with the dregs of harshness and meanness that inspire people to consider others less than themselves because of factors of birth and nationality, caste and class.  All of us can surely benefit by exposure to her marvelously supple prose and insight into what really constitutes a loving human situation, and her cues as to where the human equation needs to be re-configured.  Danticat writes with love even of the loveless, with compassion even of those who show they have none, and with certainty that in the moments of uncertainty we have our survival, when we hesitate to pronounce on someone else’s fate.  This book is one of the simplest and yet most complicated I think I have ever read, and is in my estimation one of the best books of its time.


Filed under Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

13 responses to “Edwidge Danticat’s “The Farming of Bones”–There’s no such thing as a small massacre

  1. It sounds intense, I had no idea about such troubles in that part of the world, I guess it has been overshadowed with all the WWII books. Like you say though it is criminal to not have more knowledge about such ‘unrest’, how does a society learn from its mistakes if we don’t hear about and understand them. Sounds like a(nother) book I need to pick up.


    • It is in its essence a tale by a surviving voice, like that of a Holocaust survivor, but the pain of those times is definitely in evidence in all that she witnesses, which makes Amabelle a witness who speaks the language of her imprisonment, then the language of her freedom, but of a freedom which always recalls the interior experience. Please do read it if you get the chance; I’d like to hear your take on the style in which it is written, as well as on the content.


  2. Such a great post.
    I think you’d find a lot of Haitian literature simple and complicated at the same time. Unfortunately, if you don’t read French, you will not be able to read it. Danticat is one of a very few writing in English.
    Haiti is one of the most interesting places because almost everything that can go wrong in a country has gone wrong there. I could write pages and pages on that.
    I’ve not been in either Hait nor the Dominican Republic but people who have tell me that when you’re on the Dominican side and look over it’s a shock to see the difference.
    I can recommend the documentary The Ghosts of Cité Soleil – but it’s tough. You need a good stomach to watch it.
    You’re lovely review put me in the mood to read this and her memoir. I’ve read her first novel and short stories.


    • Hi, Caroline. Years ago, I used to read French with a fair amount of ease, but times have changed and I haven’t regularly read French for years, so about all I’m good for these days is translating the occasional phrase or clause. I read some on Wikipedia this morning about the tangled relationship between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and it’s really quite astonishing. About “Krik? Krak!” I had wanted to start with that, but for some reason even though it’s very well known, my library didn’t have it. Anyway, I chose “The Farming of Bones,” and now there’s another one out called “Claire of the Sea Light” which is quite enthralling. I’ve read about half of it, but now have to wait for it to be renewed before finishing the rest. What I like the most about Danticat is that she is so good at personalizing the experience to her main character so that it’s not just preachy doctrine or propaganda, but has the feel of a lived experience. And thanks for your kind words, they are much appreciated. Somehow, when the work is so fine itself, my work of reviewing it is that much easier and clearer.


      • I’m glad ot hear “Claire of the Sea Light” is good as well.
        I really liked the short stories and the novel Breath, Eyes, Memory. Personalizing the experience is exactly what she does.
        The other one I have is “Brother, I’m Dying” a memoir, which should be very good too.


  3. Yes, “Breath, Eyes, Memory” is the next on my list to read. The library does carry it. I hadn’t heard of the memoir before, but I’ll look for it as well. There is a minuteness of detail to her observation, both of external telling details of the action and of details of neat characterization in what the characters say and think that is simply some of the best around.


  4. I thought you’d like this.
    And Vishy commented on your comment on my Melissa banks post and then I’ve added this link


    • Thanks very much for the link: I read the article, and I heartily agree with the perspective. It reminds me of what Simone de Beauvoir said about women. She said something to the effect that when women act like people, they’re accused of wanting to act like men. Men don’t want to read about female people evidently, only about male people, so works by women get marginalized as “women’s fiction.” Of course, I leave Vishy out of this sexist accounting, because by the times he’s responded on your site, and I know that you cover a lot of women writers, he’s obviously more open-minded than most. I’ll go back into your review on Melissa Banks and try to respond to his comment. Thanks again.


      • I loved what Vishy said on my blog after freading Max’s articel about the male taste being the default taste regarding covers. It’s so true. Put the picture of a woman on any cover, even if it’s not done in a “girlie” way, and men will not pick it up.


  5. Yes, I think it’s part of a general male “fear” of “women’s things,” as if we were going to embarrass them by constant discussions of female anatomies or hormones that didn’t center on how to conquer the female “intimate enemy,” a sort of dialogue which men find acceptable. Maybe that’s why Jane Austen is “okay,” because she shows women as in the end vulnerable to men’s courting “discourse,” which acknowledges male power even while she’s making her ironic “dimpled” remarks. They can take a little bitchery, but not a total change of perspective. But I guess it’s also true that women get a little tired of seeing even sometimes very supposedly well-brought-up men do the literary equivalent of scratching their balls in public, you know, the insistence on the sexist male perspective as the norm.


  6. D. James Fortescue

    A fantastic review. It is truly an art to write your characters with an non-judgmental eye, especially in the face of such horrific acts, allowing the reader to draw their own opinions and assumptions from them.

    A lot of the fantasy books I read are female. The ‘to-read’ pile that is physically sitting on my bookshelf is a 50/50 on the genders (8 books each). The guys win out in the action stakes, while the ladies have the knack for deeper character painting.


  7. Thanks for the generous praise. An excellent and famous book on how to control readers’ sympathies for characters without necessarily coming out and telling them what to think is Wayne Booth’s “The Rhetoric of Fiction.” It’s been around a while (I think the last edition was in 1983), but it says a lot of what needs to be said about modulating between an omniscient narrator’s voice and the voices of the characters, for example, or when an intrusive narrator is called for and when the characters themselves need to do the talking. I think you would really enjoy the book, and i think it’s a good book for any writer to have on their shelf.


    • And p.s. DJ–You are emphatically NOT one of those sexist males whom I was attacking in my last comment. That series of comments between Caroline and myself is an ongoing one which started on her site (http://beautyisasleepingcat.wordpress.com) and travelled to my comments here. Caroline was reviewing “The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing,” if you’re interested in having a look to see the course of the dialogue, and maybe commenting on her site if you have anything to say about our discussion there. You have not only from what you say read a lot of female fiction, but I know from reading your writings that you also typically feature a number of female protagonists and other characters in a sympathetic manner. Thanks for commenting.


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