The Farming of Bones

by Edwidge Danticat
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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 268

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.

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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.

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Latest answer posted February 24, 2010, 11:11 am (UTC)

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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.”

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1036

Exile
As Scott Adlerberg observed in the Richmond Review, ‘‘Exile increases the poignancy of memory,’’ and many of the characters in the book are exiled, cut off from their families or homes by death or distance. Amabelle remembers her parents constantly, replaying their death by drowning in the swollen river, and talks about them with her lover Sebastien, who likewise tells her about his lost childhood in Haiti. The poor, displaced Haitians in the book all share this sense of a lost home, and it serves as a bond to unite their community—as Amabelle notes, ‘‘In his sermons to the Haitian congregants of the valley he often reminded everyone of common ties: language, foods, history, carnival, songs, tales, and prayers. His creed was one of memory, how remembering—though sometimes painful—can make you strong.’’ The Haitian sugar cane workers consider themselves to be ‘‘an orphaned people, a group of vwayaje, wayfarers.’’

The Haitians in the book are not the only exiles; Amabelle's employer, Don Ignacio, though born in Spain, came to the Caribbean to fight in the Spanish-American War in 1898. Now, each night he scrolls up and down the radio dial to hear reports from Spain about the progress of the Spanish Civil War. Amabelle notices his homesickness and is aware that ‘‘he felt himself the displaced child of a now orphaned people.’’

Despite these warnings, Amabelle, Sebastien, and the other Haitians are unprepared for the bloodbath about to occur, which will further exile those who are not slaughtered in it. The survivors, cut off from their past, those they love, and their own sense of safety and purpose, are spiritual exiles, looking for meaning and a sense of purpose; some find it, and some never do.

Genocide
The mass killing of Haitians is the central event in the book, and is described with nightmarish clarity; the book may remind readers of more recent atrocities in Bosnia and Rwanda, and the refugees flowing over the borders of these and other countries. Danticat is aware that despite the fact that events like these are visible on the news almost every night, these events seem very far away. She told Calvin Wilson in the Kansas City Star, ‘‘People don't want to believe that there is that kind of danger, if there is no precedent for it that they know of. They don't want to believe that, all of a sudden, thousands of people can be killed.’’ The book is a vivid reminder that these events do happen, that they can happen to everyone, and that no one is left out of the whirlpool of death and destruction when they do occur.

Remembrance
The themes of exile and of remembrance are related: the exiles' pain is alternately increased or soothed by their remembrance of the past. In addition, however, the book is permeated with a sense of remembrance of the actual people who suffered through these events, and the unnamed, unrecorded tens of thousands who were killed. As a man says near the end of the book, ‘‘Famous men never die.… It is only those nameless and faceless who vanish like smoke in the early moning air.’’ Danticat sees changing this fate as part of her mission as a writer, wanting to create a kind of memorial in words for all the ‘‘nameless and faceless.’’ As Amabelle says, ‘‘All I want to do is find a place to lay it [the slaughter] down now and again, a safe nest where it will neither be scattered by the winds, nor remain forever buried beneath the sod.’’

The River of Death
The Massacre River, named for a mass slaughter in the seventeenth century, lives up to its name in the events of the book. Throughout the book, the river is a place of actual and symbolic death: many people die in it, corpses float down it, and once people cross it, their lives are never the same. Crossing it a second time is even harder, leading to alienation: you can never truly go back to the other side.

Amabelle's life is marked early by the river: when she is a child, her parents try to cross it to get to a market in the Dominican Republic. Though the water is visibly rising and the young boys who work carrying people and goods across refuse to go, her father insists that they enter the current. ‘‘My father reaches into the current and sprinkles his face with the water, as if to salute the spirit of the river and request her permission to cross,’’ Amabelle says. ‘‘My mother crosses herself three times and looks up at the sky before she climbs on my father's back.’’ Despite these ritual precautions, Amabelle's parents are swept away. Amabelle is prevented from going after them by the river boys, who drag her away, saying, ‘‘Unless you want to die, you will never see those people again.’’

Later, during the mass slaughter of Haitians, she and some other refugees reach the river. ‘‘From a distance,’’ she says, ‘‘the water looked deep and black, the bank much steeper than I remembered.’’ They hear splashing: the Dominicans are throwing corpses into the water. When they cross, they must swim to avoid the bodies and the belongings of slain Haitians: the water is literally a river of death. And when Odette, another refugee, panics because her husband has been shot while he swims across, Amabelle covers her nose and mouth to keep her quiet, ‘‘for her own good, for our own good.’’ Odette does not struggle, but gives up to the lack of air and the motion of the river, as if she has already decided to die.

Near the end of the book, Amabelle crosses the river again, returning to the Dominican Republic, and tries to find Alegria, the region she lived in for so long. All is unrecognizable, the landmarks changed or gone, the people gone or moved, and when she finally finds her former employer Valencia, Valencia does not recognize her until she tells the story of her parents' death in the river. Valencia apologizes for this, and Amabelle tells her she understands and says she feels ‘‘like an old ghost had slipped under my skin.’’

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