In a talk Edwidge Danticat gave in January 1998, she commented, "It's often thought that poor people have no interior lives, and later, I always tell people to fill in the silence that bothers them." Thus, it's fitting that Danticat's newest novel, The Farming of Bones, set in 1937 during a bloody border uprising between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, begins inside the dreams of Amabelle Desir, and returns there many times.
The dream sequences are not stylistic accoutrements—they are Amabelle's remembrances of her mother and father's drowning in the river that makes up the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. For Amabelle, dreams are stories a person can create and hold onto in a time when they can create and hold onto nothing else. "You may be surprised what we use our dreams to do, how we drape them over our sight and carry them like amulets to protect us from evil spells," she says. That is why she continues to dream despite her grief and loss—her parents' death is the only story that is completely hers, and she wants to remember it.
Soon, however, Amabelle gathers even more losses. In a moment, or an evening at least, the cane-growing community where she has lived and worked since a Dominican family rescued her from the riverbank, transforms. Suddenly, armed Dominican soldiers are forcing the Haitian caneworkers onto trucks, along with Amabelle's lover and soon-to-be husband. She knows it is likely that he has been killed, but on the slim hope that he was taken to the border, she begins a journey through the woods and mountains to find him. Along the way she and her traveling partner are attacked, their mouths stuffed with parsley—for something as slight as a person's pronunciation of the Spanish word for parsley is enough to divide native from alien, European from African, insider from outsider. Such divisions are at the heart of the book.
The Farming of Bones is profoundly sad and beautiful. More than anything, it's an exploration of grief, of how loss can become the defining motif of people's lives. It is an investigation of the idea of borders, of how a particular river can divide one country from another, and the living from the dead. Amabelle is kin to that dividing river. She exists as the river does, in a half-life between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, between life and death. And Danticat tells us something history should have already taught us: at borders, there are only stories of loss.
Laura Wexler is a freelance writer in Athens, Georgia.