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.
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 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...
(The entire section is 1,601 words.)