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 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...
(The entire section is 1991 words.)