Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 277
Amabelle, although relatively naïve, is careful and resourceful, and she knows her place. She still grieves for her parents, but she loves Sebastien—a very quiet, limited love that they both live for, although they are seldom together. After her arrival at the Haitian tent clinic, where she is surrounded by wounded, she sees her reflection in the tin ceiling and cannot tell which face is hers. She has lost her former identity; her face, like her life, has changed completely.
The Dominican characters represent different facets of their country. Sheltered Valencia, of pure Spanish extraction, chooses to overlook her husband’s negative qualities, although subconsciously she suspects he will some day leave her. The mestizo Pico, raised in poverty, takes pride in his marriage into a good family. He admires the successful Trujillo and hopes some day to become president himself. Driving carelessly in his haste to join his wife after the birth of twins, he inadvertently kills Joël, Sebastien’s fellow worker, but refuses to search for the body. To Pico, the Haitian’s life is of no importance, although Don Ignacio, who accompanies him, feels shock and guilt at Joël’s death. Devoted to tradition yet constantly questioning it, the old gentleman is troubled by a conscience that the others ignore.
Generalissimo Trujillo, a historical figure who is never seen directly, looms over the whole novel. He sets the story in motion; he is Pico’s inspiration, the cruel scourge of the Haitians, and a man so powerful that even the Dominicans dare not speak out against him. His thirty-one-year rule will leave an indelible mark on the island of Hispaniola.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1324
Amabelle Desir Amabelle is orphaned at a young age when her parents drown in the river between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, as they try to cross over to attend a market on the far side. Distraught, she tries to follow them, but two river-crossing guides hold her back, saying, ‘‘Unless you want to die, you will never see those people again.’’ She is found on the riverbank by kindhearted and wealthy landowner Don Ignacio, who asks her, ‘‘Who do you belong to?’’ ‘‘To myself,’’ she answers. He takes her in as a house servant, where she grows up with his daughter Valencia; as Valencia grows up, Amabelle becomes her personal maid, altering the relationship from personal companion to respectful servant. When Valencia has twins and there is no one else to attend her unexpected and early delivery, Amabelle serves as midwife, having picked up a smattering of knowledge about this from her parents, who were both traditional healers back in Haiti.
Alone and alienated, a stranger in a strange land, Amabelle clings to her lover Sebastien, who works at brutally hard labor in the sugar cane fields. They meet often in a secret cave behind a waterfall, and she says of him, ‘‘When he's not there, I'm afraid. I know no one and no one knows me.’’ Having taken the place of her family, he is her rock in life. Like her, he has suffered loss—his father was killed in a hurricane—and their shared sadness bonds them together.
When Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo begins a genocidal campaign against all Haitians in his country, Amabelle must flee for her life. She is a survivor at all costs: determined, driven, she will do whatever it takes to live. When, in the ensuing chaos, Sebastien disappears and is presumed killed, she must once again rely on her own instincts.
Amabelle makes it across the border to Haiti, but not without paying a heavy price in...
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physical and emotional suffering. For many years afterward, she grieves for Sebastien, even going back to the Dominican Republic in an attempt to find their old secret cave. Driven to find answers to the questions that haunt her—why people suffer, why they die, why she lived when others perished—she returns to the river, hoping ‘‘that if I came to the river on the right day, at the right hour, the surface of the water might provide the answer.… But nature has no memory.’’
Don Ignacio A wealthy Dominican landowner, Valencia's father, and employer of Amabelle and Sebastien. He was born in Spain, and constantly looks back to his lost homeland. Each night he listens to the radio for broadcasts of the progress of the Spanish Civil War. As Amabelle notes, ‘‘He felt himself the orphaned child of a now orphaned people.’’ Sympathetic to the suffering of others, he takes Amabelle into his household when he finds her orphaned on the riverbank; this sympathy comes from the fact that although he is wealthy now, his background was humble. Back in Spain, he says, ‘‘My father was a baker.… There are times when he gave bread to everyone in our quarter for nothing. I was his only son but he would never let me eat until everyone else had eaten.’’ When his son kills a Haitian worker with his car, Don Ignacio is sympathetic and wants to visit the grieving father, but he is human and has limits—when his own grandson dies, he forgets all about this, wrapped up in his own pain.
Doctor Javier An intense, educated man, he admires Amabelle's intelligence and determination and invites her to work in a clinic in Haiti with him when he finds out that her parents were healers and that she has successfully midwifed Valencia's twins. ‘‘You can be trained,’’ he says. ‘‘We have only two Haitian doctors for a large area. I cannot go there all the time, and I know of only one or two midwives in that region of the border. You are greatly needed.’’ When he hears about the genocide, he warns Amabelle and others to run and tells her he and others have room in their trucks for her, but before this happens, he is arrested and is never seen again.
Kongo An old mask maker and carpenter, whose true name is unknown. His son is struck and killed by Pico Duarte's car. When the genocide begins, he tells Amabelle that she must escape. He does not try to escape, saying that he is too old to run, but he performs a ritual for safe passage and tells her how to follow mountain trails and then cross the river.
Sebastien Onius Amabelle's lover, who works in Don Ignacio's sugar cane fields. His father was killed seven years before the story begins, in a devastating hurricane; this led him and his sister to seek work in Dominica, though his mother remains in Haiti. He is a strong, calm man, her friend and protector; when the genocide begins he disappears, presumably killed, and is never seen again. He is an enigmatic figure: intensely strong and physical, often sweaty and dirty from his hard work, but he speaks like a poet when he and Amabelle lie together in their secret cave, telling stories of his dreams and the past, of the hurricane that killed his father. He likes to talk; he dislikes silence, because ‘‘to him [it] is like sleep, a close second to death.’’ He disappears early in the book, apparently killed by the Dominicans, but he is an almost tangible presence throughout, as Amabelle grieves and asks everyone she meets if they know what happened to him.
PapiSee Don Ignacio
Man Rapadou Mother of Yves, who has her own secrets: when she found that her husband, a Haitian, was planning to become a spy for American interests, she cooked him a meal filled with ground glass and rat poison, and killed him. She tells Amabelle, ‘‘Greater than my love for this man was my love for my country.’’
Father Romain A Haitian priest who works with the poor Haitian workers and who runs a school for their children. He often speaks of their home in Haiti, and how common language, customs, and memories bind them all together as a community. Amabelle says of him, ‘‘His creed was one of memory, how remembering—though sometimes painful—can make you strong.’’ During the genocide, he is tortured by the Dominicans and goes insane, but eventually is healed when he leaves the priesthood, marries, and has three children. ‘‘It took more than prayers to heal me after the slaughter,’’ he tells Amabelle. ‘‘It took a love closer to the earth, closer to my own body, to stop my tears. Perhaps I have lost, but I have also gained an ever greater understanding of things both godly and earthly.’’
Valencia Daughter of Don Ignacio, wife of Pico Duarte, and mother of twin babies, a boy and a girl. She and Amabelle grew up together, and later, during the genocide, she helps hide Haitians from the killers because she remembers how close she was to Amabelle: ‘‘I hid them because I couldn't hide you.… I thought you'd been killed, so everything I did, I did in your name.’’ She is one of the few characters in the book who does not murder, injure, or neglect someone else; despite being married to a man who carries out the orders to kill as many Haitians as possible, she works to save them.
Yves A sugar cane worker, a refugee. Amabelle escapes with him, and not knowing where else to go, follows him to his mother's house in Haiti. They live together as if they're married, and his mother assumes they are lovers, though they are not—Amabelle is still grieving for Sebastien, who has disappeared. Yves spends long days working in his fields, only coming home at night and going to sleep immediately.