Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1277

Political Terror in Haiti
Haiti in the early 1980s was ruled by Jean Claude ‘‘Baby Doc’’ Duvalier, son of the infamous dictator Francois ‘‘Papa Doc’’ Duvalier. During Papa Doc's regime, the longest in Haitian history, he executed all opponents without trial, and kept troops of unpaid volunteers, known as Tontons Macoutes, who were given license to torture, rape, and kill people at will. During his rule, the Haitian economy deteriorated and only 10 percent of the population could read. Papa Doc encouraged the population to believe that he was an accomplished practitioner of voudon, or voodoo, and possessed supernatural powers; to rebel against him invited death. After Papa Doc's death in 1971, his son succeeded him, continuing his reign of terror until 1986, when he was overthrown. Even after his overthrow, although the Tontons Macoutes were no longer officially condoned, they still terrorized the population.

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The Tontons Macoutes are ever-present in the book, since Sophie was born as a result of one of them raping her mother when she was sixteen-years-old. For the rest of her life, long after she has moved to Brooklyn, Martine has terrifying dreams of this event and of the rapist, and passes her fear on to Sophie, who, everyone believes, looks just like the rapist since she does not look like anyone in her family. As a child, Sophie is aware that there is unrest and killing beyond her small town, and sees it for herself on the trip to the airport when she is leaving for the United States. Outside the airport they see a car in flames, students protesting, and soldiers shooting bullets and tear gas at them. They watch helplessly as a soldier beats a girl's head in with his gun. On the airplane, Sophie sits next to a small boy whose father has just been killed in the demonstration but who is traveling alone anyway, because he has no relatives left in Haiti.

The prevalence of poverty and illiteracy in Haiti is also important in the book. Sophie's Tante Atie, who cannot read, tells her, ''We are a family with dirt under our fingernails,’’ meaning that they have always been poor agricultural laborers, and says that the only way Sophie will improve her life is to become educated. Atie tells Sophie that when Atie was small, the whole family had to work in the sugar cane fields, and when Sophie's grandfather died in the field one day, they simply had to dig a hole, bury him, and move on. Her mother also tells her, ‘‘Your schooling is the only thing that will make people respect you. If you make something of yourself, we will all succeed. You can raise our heads.’’

Traditional Role of Women
In Haiti, traditional belief holds that a woman's place is in the home. Tante Atie tells Sophie that when she was a girl, Grandma Ife told her that each of her ten fingers has a purpose: Mothering. Boiling. Loving. Baking. Nursing. Frying. Healing. Washing. Ironing. Scrubbing. Wistfully Atie says that she sometimes wished she had been born with six fingers on each hand, so she could have two left over for herself.

Despite the fact that women do so much, they are not valued as much as men. When Sophie returns to Haiti with her baby daughter, one night she and her grandmother sit watching a light moving back and forth on a distant hill. Her grandmother tells her this means someone is having a baby, and the light is the midwife walking back and forth with a lantern in the yard, where a pot of water was boiling. She also says that they can tell from what happens to the light whether the child is a boy or a girl. If it is a boy, she says, the lantern will be put outside the shack and if the father is there, he will stay up all night with the new baby boy. Sophie asks what will happen if the child is a girl, and her grandmother tells her, ' 'If it is a girl, the midwife...

(The entire section contains 5339 words.)

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