Among Haitians, as in many story-telling cultures, special words indicate a storyteller’s readiness to relate a story and the audience’s readiness to listen. Edwidge Danticat recalls that Haitian children ask “Krik?” and their grandmothers answer “Krak!” when tales are about to begin. Perhaps like most tales, the stories of this collection are meant to do more than simply entertain. Danticat’s epilogue underscores what the reader has already discerned—these stories commemorate the efforts of those Haitians, especially Haitian women, who have struggled to keep life going in the midst of poverty, bloodshed, terrorism, and death.
We see that valor first in “Children of the Sea,” a story with themes and events that foreshadow those in other stories of the collection. “Children of the Sea” is a series of letters between a young man who is escaping Haiti on a boat and the girl he loves, who must stay behind with her family. Although each of the nameless pair writes faithfully to the other, both know that their letters can never be mailed.
In her letters, the girl reveals that the young man had been a student, one of a group protesting government repression. She tells him the grisly fates of some fellow students who have been murdered by the macoutes, the government’s death squads; she tells him of the macoutes’ atrocities, such as their forcing parents at gunpoint to have sexual relations with their own sons and daughters. When the macoutes come to a neighbor’s house, the girl and her family hide in a latrine and listen to the neighbor’s screams. The mother longs to aid her friends, but the father reminds her that as soon as they can get enough gasoline they will leave Port-au-Prince for Ville Rose; if she goes outside, she will only put their escape in jeopardy. Later, when the girl complains to her mother that her father despises her student lover, her mother tells her that they have exiled themselves to Ville Rose because her father had learned that the daughter, herself a student, was also about to be arrested. Bribing the soldiers cost him all of his land and money. Now in rural Ville Rose, the daughter recognizes her father’s sacrifice and is reconciled with him. She spends her days writing letters and waiting for butterflies to light on her hand, a sign of news about her lover.
The young man’s letters relate the terrors of going to sea in a leaky boat, overcrowded with people who are risking their lives to leave bloody Haiti. To pass the time and subdue their hunger pangs (food—except for fish—gives out very early), the travelers sing and tell stories. One of the passengers is Célianne, a girl of fifteen, who is pregnant. She was raped by some macoutes. The baby is stillborn at sea. Célianne can hardly bear to give up the dead child to the sea, and when at last she does so, she jumps in after it and drowns.
By the end of the story, the fragile boat is taking on water so dangerously that even the young man’s notebook must be jettisoned, and so his letters end. In his sweetheart’s last letter, she says that she has had news of a boat sinking near the Bahamas. She fears that the butterflies will announce his death.
Terrorism, death, the suffering of children, the ties binding mothers and daughters, the importance of stories to act as witness to these events—these are the themes of this collection. Haiti’s long legacy of terrorism is the most consistent theme among them. In “Nineteen Thirty-seven” a woman dies in prison. Her...
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daughter relates the story, remembering her mother’s tale of escaping the 1937 slaughter of Haitian workers by soldiers of the Dominican Republic, under orders of General Rafael Trujillo. Her mother had fled, almost flown, over the Massacre River into Haiti and safety so that the daughter could be born. In “The Missing Peace,” a young woman named Lamort (“Death,” because her mother had died giving her birth) takes an American writer to the mass grave where the writer’s mother, a journalist, may have been buried. Near the churchyard, they watch soldiers dragging away a rebel who has evidently been beaten to death.
Violence forms a backdrop even for the last stories of the collection, where the setting is America. In “Caroline’s Wedding,” for example, each week in church a mother, a Haitian immigrant from Ville Rose, hears the priest read the names of refugees who have drowned at sea. One of those people is Célianne, the young mother of the first story. Grace, the daughter who narrates the story, often remembers the agonizing poverty in which her parents lived before they came to America. Similarly, the Haitians who died in the killings at Massacre River in 1937 are important elements in several stories, even when they are not central characters, for their fates are always in the consciousness of their children.
Children also play an important role in these stories. Célianne’s dead baby is only the first of many children who suffer under Haiti’s blood and poverty. In “Night Women,” a Ville Rose prostitute worries about the effects of her life on her young son. In “Between the Pool and the Gardenias,” the young narrator, Marie, works as a maid for a well-to-do family. When she finds a dead baby in the garden, she names the infant Rose and tries to keep her—the one creature she can love in all the world. In “A Wall of Fire Rising,” Guy and Lili try to provide a living for Little Guy, their young son. At the time of the story, Guy has been promised a few hours of work at the sugar mill, although he is still seventy-ninth on the full-time hiring list. At the same time, the young son has been given a part in the school play; he will be Boukman, the slave revolutionary who became a forefather of Haitian independence. Guy and Lili thrill with pride at the long speech in which Boukman claims to see a wall of fire rising and in its ashes the bones of all those who have gone before him. It is the vision that presumably committed Boukman to live free or die. Guy is infected with that vision, and it leads him to actions that cause his death. At the story’s end, Little Guy recites his inspiring speech over his father’s body.
The theme is concluded in “New York Day Women,” a story made up of a collage of incidents and sayings from a nameless daughter and mother. The mother is one the “day women” of the title; she walks through parts of the city while her daughter spies on her. The mother, a refugee from Ville Rose, is walking to a park to care for a child while the child’s affluent mother goes jogging; it is a job for a “day woman.” From a distance, the daughter watches her mother read a Big Bird book to the little boy; she recalls that her mother taught herself to read from her older brothers’ schoolbooks, years ago in Haiti.
Many of these stories dramatize the ties between mothers and daughters, bearing witness to the suffering and courage of women who appear powerless but who, in extreme times, can risk everything to protect their families. In return, daughters are obligated to tell their mothers’ stories, to validate their sacrifices. Thus Josephine, the daughter of “Nineteen Thirty-seven,” carries on her mother’s tradition of pilgrimage to the Massacre River after her mother’s death in prison. There in 1937, pregnant with Josephine, the mother had fled Trujillo’s soldiers. She once told Josephine how she had watched her friends and relatives die at that river and how she herself had sprouted wings and flown across to save the life of her unborn child. Now Josephine memorializes that escape.
Even Marie, the pitiful child-narrator of “Between the Pool and the Gardenias,” tells of her mother’s comforting visits to her in her dreams. In “The Missing Peace,” the journalist is seeking her mother’s grave, and at the story’s end, Lamort, the child who guides her, tells her grandmother that she now wishes to be called by her own mother’s name—another testament.
The last story in the collection, “Caroline’s Wedding,” broadens this theme to comment on the whole relationship between parents and children. The setting is New York, where Ma lives with her daughters, Grace (who has just become a naturalized citizen) and Caroline, whose decision to marry a Bahamian man instead of a Haitian is breaking her mother’s heart. Daily Ma cooks bone soups intended to bring Caroline to her senses, but she persists in her plans. Ma relates the story of her own courtship, which was finalized when the father of her husband-to-be wrote an eloquent letter to her father, arranging the marriage. Grace also recalls her father, the things he taught her; his memories of his early life of wretched poverty in Haiti, where he once ate food intended for pigs; the very pragmatic letters he wrote their mother before she left Haiti to join him in America. Ma must accept the ways of their new land, while Caroline and Grace are committed to the demands of their memories.
The stories of this collection are interrelated not only by these themes and settings but also by imagery and characters. Throughout the stories, Danticat weaves image patterns of butterflies and flying, the texture of skin and flowers, colors and smells. Her language echoes from one story to the next.
Even more significantly, however, she links the characters themselves from story to story. Ma in “Caroline’s Wedding,” the last story in the collection, learns of the drowned boat that evidently carried the letter-writing student of the first story. Marie, the child who finds the baby in “Between the Pool and the Gardenias,” is the granddaughter of the woman who flew across the Massacre River and the goddaughter of Lili, the mother in “A Wall of Fire Rising.”
These stories have been called “spare,” yet Danticat uses rich detail to evoke the beauty and agony of Haitian life, even though she does not offer a naturalistic re- creation of it. She includes references to voodoo and its intermingling with Christianity, such as the magic bone soup that Ma prepares, even though she attends Mass faithfully. The sights and smells of Haiti are vividly suggested when Lamort remarks that the night breeze carries the smell of rotting flesh from the mass grave in the cemetery. She covers her nose with a red hibiscus blossom and runs home, where her grandmother tells her that those hibiscus grow with blood on them. When Lamort bathes in water from the rain barrel, her grandmother scrubs her back with a handful of mint leaves. Such details may be economical; they are not spare.
The book concludes with an epilogue, “Women Like Us.” In it Danticat describes, obliquely, the particular problems of being a writer who, being Haitian and female, knows that she is from a world where writers have little regard for women and where powerful men have often tortured and killed them. Nevertheless, like the women she writes about, she is called to honor the memory of those mothers and grandmothers with her stories—her testament, she says, to “the way that these women lived and died and lived again.”
Sources for Further Study
Belles Lettres. X, Summer, 1995, p. 12.
Essence. XXV, April, 1995, p. 56.
Library Journal. CXX, March 15, 1995, p. 100.
Los Angeles Times. March 30, 1995, p. E8.
Ms. V, March, 1995, p. 75.
The New York Times Book Review. C, April 23, 1995, p. 22.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, February 20, 1995, p. 195.
San Francisco Chronicle. May 28, 1995, p. REV4.
USA Today. November 9, 1995, p. D6.
The Washington Post Book World. XXV, May 14, 1995, p. 4.
The title of Edwidge Danticat’s collection of nine stories, mostly about young women growing up under an oppressive regime in Haiti and trying to create a new home in America, comes from an African storytelling call-and-response tradition recounted in the first story, “Children of the Sea.” In this tradition, someone asks, “Krik?” inquiring whether the audience wishes to hear a story, and the listeners emphatically answer, “Krak!” which means “yes.”
Several stories in the collection focus on the relationship between mothers and their children. In “Nineteen Thirty-Seven,” a young woman visits her mother, who has been imprisoned for being a witch. “Night Women” is a brief, lyrical piece from the point of view of a young prostitute. The protagonist tells her son stories of the ghost women in Ville Rose and her own magical ability to make herself a goddess. To keep her son from being frightened when she has customers at night, she tells him the men are angels. In “Between the Pool and the Gardenias,” a servant finds the body of a dead baby on a street curb. Because she has lost several children in childbirth, she picks it up and calls it “Little Rose,” caring for the child as if it were alive until its odor become so strong that she must bury it in the garden. The Dominican gardener catches her and accuses her of killing the child and keeping it to perform black magic.
In “A Wall of Fire Rising,” the only story in the collection featuring a male protagonist, a young boy acting in a school play is asked to play the role of one of the fathers of Haitian independence from French rule in the early nineteenth century. His father, proud of his son but ashamed of his own failures to support his family, becomes fascinated with a hot air balloon that belongs to the owners of the sugar mill. Boasting that he can make the balloon fly, he dreams of taking it to a place with a plot of land where he can build his own house and keep his own garden. When he does take the balloon up, he jumps out and crashes near where his wife and son are standing.
Two stories in the collection focus on Haitian women who have immigrated to America. “New York Day Women” is a counterpoint story in which a young woman who works in a New York advertising office intersperses her comments about her mother with comments by the mother herself, who cares for the children of wealthy women who go jogging in the park. “Caroline’s Wedding,” the longest story in the collection and the most novelistic, focuses on Gracina Azile, a young Haitian woman who gets her naturalization certificate and applies for a U.S. passport. Her younger sister Caroline, who was born without her left forearm, is engaged to a man from the Bahamas. Their mother believes that Caroline’s deformity is the result of her being given a drug after being arrested in a sweatshop raid while she was pregnant. The narrator gets her passport, but she feels that her whole family has paid dearly for it.