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 generations, but they dismiss these rumors.
Sebastien and Amabelle make plans to marry. Hearing that General Trujillo has ordered Haitians to be removed from the country, Amabelle, Sebastien, and Mimi become convinced of the urgency of leaving. They plan to meet at a church where Doctor Javier has told Amabelle that he and Father Romain will drive a group across the border. They arrive late, and Amabelle hears that all those who were there on time were taken to a border prison.
Amabelle and Yves travel to the border, encountering many dead and injured along the way. In Dajabón, the prison border town, Yves, Amabelle, and others fail a test designed to separate Dominicans from Haitians: Unable to pronounce the Spanish word for parsley, perejil, they are made to eat handful after handful of parsley and severely beaten or killed. Amabelle, Yves, and another couple, Wilner and Odette, cross the river back to Haiti, but Wilner is shot and Amabelle accidentally drowns Odette while trying to silence her.
After slowly recovering at a border clinic, and receiving no word of Sebastien or Mimi, Yves and Amabelle go to Cap Haïtien, where Yves’s mother, Man Rapadou, houses them. Amabelle keeps trying to find word of Sebastien and Mimi. She and others who have survived the massacre try to find ways to tell their stories and to have them recorded. They hear that General Trujillo is giving compensation to those who record their story with the justice of the peace, but...
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soon the money is gone and no more stories will be recorded.
In the meantime, Yves begins planting his father’s land. Amabelle continues to live with Yves and his mother, sewing for anyone for whatever they will pay or trade. Time passes, and Amabelle and Yves grow older. Neither finds a partner, either in each other or in another. Neither returns to a “normal” life again, always missing those they lost in the massacre.
Amabelle returns to Alegría, trying to find a waterfall she and Sebastien treasured. She sees Señora Valencia, who has another Haitian servant. She also hears a story about General Trujillo’s experience as a guard in cane fields: Upon hearing a Haitian cane worker mispronounce perejil, the general said that he had found a way to identify Haitians, as their pronunciation would always give them away.
Returning, Amabelle takes off her clothes and lies in the river, face up, only partially submerged. The river is very shallow and warm at this time of year—October, the same month as the massacre that took place decades earlier. She thinks of all those who have been lost in the river and on either side of it. A “crazy” man affected by the massacre watches her lying in the water and then walks away, as Amabelle floats in the water and in her dreams.