Critic Heather Hewett suggests that The Farming of Bones “explores the impact of nationalism, race, and gender on the bodies of men and women.” Certainly, racial prejudice runs rampant through the novel. In an opening scene illustrating the respective positions of three races, Amabelle serves as an involuntary midwife to her former friend, assisting at the birth of Valencia’s twins. Pico arrives at his wife’s bedside, dismisses Amabelle, and is delighted with the birth of his fair-skinned son Rafael, proudly named in honor of the dictator. He is less pleased with his tiny, dark-complected daughter. Later, after cane workers invited by Valencia take refreshment on their veranda, Pico smashes the cups they have used.
As another critic points out, cane itself becomes symbolic of Haitian suffering. Cane stalks are the “bones” of the title, their sound reminding Sebastien of the breaking of chicken bones. Cutting cane is difficult, brutal work: “ . . . cane stalks have ripped apart most of the skin on [Sebastien’s] shiny black face, leaving him with crisscrossed trails of furrowed scars,” and he bears infected boils on his legs. Watching women workers bathing in a stream, Amabelle notes that “one was missing an ear. Two had lost fingers. One had her right cheekbone cracked in half, the result of a runaway machete in the fields.” Such disfigurement is both real and emblematic.
As the workers bathe, they scrub themselves with parsley, as they would corpses. For them, parsley is not only a food and a cleansing agent, but also an instrument of torture, as is language (perejil). Haitian bodies cruelly testify, “We are nothing.”