All of Danticat’s works draw on her Haitian background and her immigrant experience. Many of her characters’ lives are shaped by the fact that they live “in between” two worlds, as immigrants often do, belonging to neither world completely. Amabelle, the main character in The Farming of Bones, is a Haitian woman in her twenties living in the Dominican Republic in the 1930’s. (Haiti and the Dominican Republic are two different countries which share one small island, Hispaniola.) Orphaned as a child, she was adopted by a Dominican family and raised almost as a sister to Señora Valencia, who is the same age as Amabelle.
However, even though Amabelle feels at home with Valencia and her father, even calling the father “Papi,” she is not quite “family.” Her position in the household is that of a servant, and Valencia remarks frequently that Amabelle’s skin color is darker than that of her Dominican family. As an immigrant, she lives between two physically separate countries, but she also lives between two different roles in her household—sister and servant—and between two different social classes, as identified by skin color.
The constraining power of social class is a theme repeated in many of Danticat’s other tales. In “A Wall of Fire Rising,” a story in Krik? Krak!, a young couple living in poverty in Haiti dream of a better life for their young son, a gifted student. However, they disagree strenuously about what “a better life” means. The boy’s father, who works intermittently at best and has always dreamed of a permanent job at the local mill, wants to place his son on the waiting list for mill work so that “maybe by the time he becomes a man he can be up for a job.” The boy’s mother, on the other hand, is opposed to this; to her, a better life means education and a life beyond mill work and poverty. Placing the boy on the waiting list, she feels, will condemn him to a life of mill work. This conflict in their marriage ultimately turns tragic: The boy’s father kills himself by leaping from a hot-air balloon, symbolically demonstrating to his wife what he thinks will happen to the boy if she aims too high for him.
Danticat frequently places her characters in real historical settings that depict the often violent political situation in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. A particular strength of her writing is the skill with which she portrays the effect of political violence on individual lives. In The Farming of Bones, Amabelle loses her lover, Sebastien, and almost loses her own life in the great massacre of 1937, a historical event in which almost twenty thousand Haitians were murdered in the Dominican Republic and thousands of others were driven out of the country.
The Dew Breaker looks at Haitian political violence from another perspective. It tells the story of a Haitian man who was a “dew breaker”—a torturer—but then emigrated to Brooklyn and established a new, peaceful life as a barber and family man. In a series of interrelated stories, the novel explores the lives of several people affected by the dew breaker’s violence. Although it provides no straightforward answers, the novel raises the question of whether a person can be forgiven for a brutal past.
The importance of the mother-daughter relationship is another common theme in Danticat’s work. Often in her fiction, daughters lose their mothers to death, emigration, or prison. Inevitably, daughters are damaged by being motherless. Amabelle (of The Farming of Bones) is disturbed by recurring dreams and nightmares about her mother’s life and death. In “Nineteen Thirty-Seven,” a story in Krik? Krak!, Josephine becomes mute when her mother is imprisoned for having witch-like powers. Marie, the main character in Krik? Krak!’s “Between the Pool and the Gardenias,” is unable to have children of her own after her mother dies. Instead, she finds a dead baby girl lying in a gutter and carries its body home, taking care of it like a living baby until it starts to decompose.
The damage of being motherless can be overcome, however. After a terrible ordeal, Amabelle finds solace in the home of an older woman, a stranger who takes her in and gives her motherly care. Josephine encounters an older woman who helps her come to terms with her mother’s death in prison. In “The Missing Peace,” from Krik? Krak!, Lamort is a teenager whose name means “death” because her mother died giving birth to her. After she meets and helps a woman who is searching for her own missing mother, Lamort gains confidence and decides to change her name to Marie Magdalène, after her mother, symbolically claiming her own life. In Danticat’s writing, no other relationship can quite compare to the tenderness of the mother-daughter bond, but healing can be found in friendships with surrogate-mother figures.
First published: 1995
Type of work: Short stories
These nine stories center on relationships during difficult times—relationships between lovers or family members strained by political violence, poverty, or other forces beyond their control.
Krik? Krak! opens with the story “Children of the Sea,” which consists of an “exchange” of letters between two young lovers. Hauntingly, the letters are written, but never actually exchanged, because the young man is on a small boat with a group of people who are trying to escape Haiti, where they are wanted by the police for speaking out against the government. The reader learns at the end of the story that the young man is being forced to throw his letters overboard to make the boat lighter, because it has sprung a leak. The reader also suspects that the boat and its inhabitants will not survive this journey. For all its tragedy, this story has a tender side. In their writing, the young lovers reveal the depth of their feelings for each other, the unconditional love that the young woman’s parents have for her, and the young man’s commitment to justice despite its cost.
Many of the other stories in Krik? Krak! are similarly bittersweet. The prostitute in “Night Women” dreads the night, when her “suitors”...
(The entire section is 2581 words.)