Amabelle Desir and Sebastien Onius had come by different routes to Alegria in the Dominican Republic from their native Haiti. Amabelle was a housemaid, taken in by a wealthy Dominican family who found her on the riverbank where her parents had just drowned. She was also friend and companion to the Dominican lady of the house. Sebastien was a laborer in the sugar cane fields trying to make enough money to improve his life. Amabelle and Sebastien were in love and pledged to marry. They decided to return to Haiti because of growing antipathy towards Haitians and because they saw no future for themselves if they remained.
What should have been an uneventful trip turns into a nightmare as Generalissimo Trujillo launches his nationwide purge and massacre of Haitians. Unknown to Amabelle, Sebastien is killed immediately. Amabelle, unable to learn Sebastien’s whereabouts, flees with Sebastien’s best friend, Yves. They finally reach Haiti more dead than alive. Amabelle, having no home or family of her own, remains with Yves’ family. She is only a shell of her former strong and beautiful self. Yves, too, has suffered terribly. Over the next decades, Amabelle and Yves survive and endure, but never recover from the horrors and losses of the massacre.
To Haitians in the Dominican Republic in 1937, the Massacre, as it was called, was just as cataclysmic as World War II’s holocaust or Bosnia’s “ethnic cleansing” even though the event is far less well known. Amabelle Desir is as surely a victim of the Massacre as anyone of those whose lives were actually lost. Yet Eldwidge Danticat has made Amabelle’s story so haunting and mystical that the reader’s sense of horror and grief is far greater than any basic factual rendering of yet another example of man’s inhumanity to man could ever evoke.