(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Two small nations—the Dominican Republic, originally colonized by Spain, and Haiti, once ruled by France and settled largely by the descendants of African slaves—share the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. Steeped in their uneasy coexistence, Edwidge Danticat, a Haitian American, uses as the background of her novel a haunting event in the island’s history: the 1937 massacre of Haitian immigrant workers by order of the Dominican dictator, Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo. His action was designed to rid his country of Haitians, some of whom had lived there for generations, even though they were needed to work the land. Within two weeks, his militia slaughtered some twenty thousand Haitian men, women, and children.

Danticat’s narrator, Amabelle Désir, is a Haitian worker, a housemaid for the pureblooded Spanish family of Don Ignacio and his daughter, Señora Valencia. Years before, Don Ignacio discovered eleven-year-old Amabelle, who had just witnessed the accidental drowning of her parents in the Massacre River, which separates Haiti from the Dominican Republic. He reared her with his own daughter in the latter nation until the two were young women, when their relative stations became clear.

Danticat employs alternating chapters written in two distinctive voices. The first, lyric, impressionistic voice reveals Amabelle’s inner self—her dreams, memories, and intense love for the cane cutter Sebastien Onius. The second is Amabelle’s...

(The entire section is 561 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The Massacre River runs along the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic; it is named for a conflict that took place between France and Spain when they were the colonial powers on Hispaniola. Amabelle is an orphan whose parents accidentally drowned in the river when she was very young. She was found by Señora Valencia of Alegría and her father, Don Ignacio (Papi). She has grown up with the Valencias, working as their servant. Amabelle’s lover Sebastien, a Haitian cane worker, came to Alegría, Dominican Republic, with his sister Mimi after their father died in a hurricane.

Amabelle acts as a midwife for Señora Valencia in the birth of her first children. They are fraternal twins: a boy and girl. Rosalinda Teresa is born with a caul over her face and is darker than her brother, Rafael (Rafi), who is very fair. Señora Valencia notes this difference, hoping that her daughter will not be mistaken for one of Amabelle’s people. The Valencias’ doctor, the Dominican Doctor Javier, runs a clinic at the Haitian border. He later offers Amabelle a position there.

One day, Señor Pico Duarte, Señora Valencia’s husband, is going home to see his children. He drives too fast and hits one of three cane workers walking in the road. The man hit, Joël Lorier, is the son of Kongo, the most senior cane worker in the Haitian community. Joël lands in a ravine and dies. Papi desires to meet with Kongo and pay for Joël’s funeral. Amabelle gives Sebastien cedar planks from Papi’s store of wood to give to Kongo for a coffin, but Kongo carries Joël off and buries him in the earth. Three days later, Rafi dies suddenly, an event that some consider a return for Joël’s death.

Rumors circulate that Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican dictator for whom Rafi was named, is speaking against Haitians and desiring to force Haitians to leave the Dominican Republic or even to kill them. Amabelle and others agree that Haitians in the Dominican Republic are not respected as fellow people, even those whose families have lived there for...

(The entire section is 848 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The main character in The Farming of Bones, Amabelle, is a young Haitian woman living with her adoptive family in the Dominican Republic in the 1930’s. Orphaned at the age of eight when her parents drowned, Amabelle is haunted by dreams and nightmares about her childhood. In the happy dreams, she recalls the tender memories of family life with loving parents, but in the nightmares, she relives the moment when her mother reached out to her as she was drowning. Amabelle is never sure whether her mother was motioning for her to enter the river to die with her parents or warning her to stay back.

As a child, Amabelle was taken in by a Dominican widower and his small daughter, Valencia. Although Amabelle calls her adoptive father “Papi” and feels almost like part of the family, she also realizes that her role is that of a servant. Now in her twenties, she has found a lover, Sebastien, who is also a Haitian living in the Dominican Republic. Sebastien’s patience and soothing presence help Amabelle heal the scars of her childhood.

However, soon after the couple has become engaged to be married, violence erupts in the Dominican Republic. The Dominican dictator, General Trujillo, has incited his people to force the Haitians out of the country. In the ensuing chaos, Amabelle and Sebastien become separated from each other, and Amabelle makes her way to the border without him. There, she is brutally beaten and barely makes it across the...

(The entire section is 547 words.)