A series of circumstances led me to reread Amabelle’s story as narrated in The Farming of Bones by Edwidge Danticat. For me, the story underscores the important role literature plays in forcing us to think of the human side of historical events, in this case, as it relates to the very hot topic of immigration.
Amabelle is a Haitian young woman who is brought to the Spanish side of the Dominican Republic after both her parents drown. She is raised as the companion to the daughter of a wealthy landowner, and at the time we meet her, she is working in the household and in love with a Haitian cane cutter. An uprising of the Dominican army against the Haitians lead to tragic events and her retreat to the land of her birth.
In the Acknowledgements of the edition I just read, Danticat emphasizes that The Farming of Bones is a work of fiction based on historical events. The prose is beautifully haunting and the story is infused with a dream-like quality that supports her claim that the work is fiction. In the early sections of the novel, Amabelle retells the dreams that haunt her, and the work is littered with observations such as this one: “The night brought with it a ghostly echo so that each time Tibon spoke it seemed as though you were hearing many people say the same thing.” In spite of the fable-like narrative, the tragic events which lace Amabella’s life ring with historical truth.
That historical backdrop, a massacre of one people by another, is one that replays itself throughout history. In The Farming of Bones, trouble bubbles up slowly. Danticat does not dwell a lot on the specific political situation, but rumours of planned insurrection, the death of two sons, and other events catapult the island into a one-sided civil war. There is a repeated theme of the threat posed if one welcomes strangers into one’s home. Danticat exposes the fears of the Spanish occupiers of Santo Domingo through the irony-filled words of a priest who relays a story he was forced to say while in captivity. “Tell me, does anyone like to have their house flooded with visitors, to the point that the visitors replace their own children? How can a country be ours if we are in smaller numbers than the outsiders?”
The Farming of Bones tells Amabelle’s story of surviving great loss, but also the injustices which inflict themselves on lives simply by virtue of one’s place of birth, the changing ownership of land, or the language one speaks. It emphasizes that despite the differences imposed by nature or chance, we are all humans desirous and deserving of respect. One Haitian character sends word to a Dominican landowner-“Tell him I am a man.” We learn of the evil behind the most ambitious of humans; the conflict in the minds of those for whom the need for self-preservation paralyses them in the face of what they know they should do; and the suffering that accompanies being the survivor of tragedy. In most instances, these emotions or traits are shown both in the Haitians and the Dominicans.
Near the end of the novel, Amabelle sneaks back into Santo Domingo and tries to find a waterfall, a special place that held a “curiousity of nature” for her, but the landscape has been so much altered that even this significant natural phenomenon appears to have been unrecognizably altered. The novel seems to be saying that in the end, no one wins. Nothing remains what it was, neither for the would-be conquerors nor the survivors among the oppressed. Years later, even those who were babies when the tragedy occurred are still impacted by the events. Amabelle says to a young man who was a baby at the time of the massacre. “So you lived it?” To which the boy replies with words clearly laced with great pain, “If that is what you want to say.”
Somehow, in spite of these lessons we humans seem determined to repeat the mistakes and to allow greed and fear to colour the way in which we see and treat those who are different. We still treat poverty as something which might be contagious if we let it too close instead of a problem which could be addressed with collaborative effort. It seems we are doomed to repeat history, as long as there is “the cane to curse, the harvest to dread, the future to fear.”