Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Dew Breaker

The Dew Breaker by Edwige Danticat

Book review by Teresa Friedlander, Copyright 2010

There are epic novels which educate the reader by integrating pages from history with captivating stories of people living through world-changing events; and then there are those by modern authors, which only hint at the larger historical context surrounding their characters. The Dew Breaker falls into the latter category, and does this by using discrete stories to describe how the actions of the powerful few can ruin the lives of the powerless many for generations, even centuries. To understand this book, to appreciate it fully, the reader owes it to him- or herself to learn the back story:

Once upon a time, on a small tropical island in the Caribbean Sea, a peaceful population of Arawak-speaking Taínos (Native Americans) lived in harmony with nature. The Taínos grew cotton, and from this crafted fishing nets; they harvested cassava roots and maize as well. The Taínos’ only enemies were the cannibalistic Caribs who invaded from time to time, requiring them to develop defensive weapons and strategies. Life on this island, which the Taínos called “Ayiti”, was idyllic and the people enjoyed feasting, worshipping, and procreating. One day, however, enormous boats filled with strange-looking men with light skin and heavy clothing arrived; and the world, as the Taínos knew it, ended.

The year was 1492 and the captain of the boats was the Spanish explorer, Christopher Columbus. The beautiful and fertile island on which Columbus found himself is a place that has endured almost endless hardship and suffering in the 500 plus years since. Spain controlled the island, then called Hispañola, for almost a century before leaving it vulnerable to pirates originally from England, The Netherlands, and France. The Taíno people, meanwhile, all but disappeared. By 1664, France had formally claimed the western half of the island as a permanent settlement and the French West Indies Company established vast tobacco, indigo, cotton, cacao, coffee, and sugar cane plantations. The plantations required a constant supply of slaves from Africa, in order to realize their full economic potential, because slaves were literally worked to death. In the 18th century, Saint-Domingue – the French part of Hispañola – came to be called the “Pearl of the Antilles” given its richness and productivity. As much as 60 per cent of the coffee and 40 per cent of the sugar consumed by Europeans came from this tiny colony, no bigger than the state of Maryland.

At its height, Saint-Domingue’s slave population numbered 500,000 while its ruling white population was a mere 32,000, or 16 per cent of the total. In order to maintain control, slave owners resorted to extreme brutality and coercion, and there was no limit to the degradation or cruelty imposed on slaves in service to the colony’s economic imperative. The French Revolution created fissures in the established social and political order; and in 1790 a civil war broke out when free men of color demanded full French citizenship as spelled out in the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen”, a document similar to the United States’ Declaration of Independence. A delegation of free black men travelled to France and received a grant of full citizenship from the Legislative Assembly there. The rulers of the colony, however, did not agree and refused to recognize free men of color as full citizens. The dispute was further complicated by racial stratification: mulattos were considered of higher status than Africans, and under French law freed slaves could themselves own slaves.

In 1793, an intelligent and charismatic free man, Francois-Dominique Toussaint-L’ouverture, led a slave rebellion which eventually succeeded in driving out the French forces and repelling the opportunistic British invaders, while vanquishing the colonial slave holders. Toussaint-L’ouverture then wrote a constitution for a new government and declared himself governor for life. He was not a despot; rather he was a visionary leader, similar to our own Founding Fathers. During his brief tenure, Toussaint-L’ouverture re-established trade with Britain and the United States of America. Meanwhile, Napoleon Bonaparte wanted the colony back under France’s dominion and resorted to treachery to achieve this end. In 1802, Toussaint-L’ouverture signed a treaty with France to return the colony to French rule on the condition that slavery would not return. Three weeks later, Toussaint-L’ouverture and his family were deported to France where he died in jail a short time later. Napoleon’s forces fought a brutal war of aggression against the freed slaves in order to reinstate slavery in the colony, however the brief taste of freedom which Toussaint-L’ouverture had achieved for the population unified them and by 1804, the French withdrew. General Jean-Jacques Dessalines declared independence and named the new nation, Haiti, which meant “land of mountains” in the Taínos’ language.

In order to survive economically, Haiti was obliged to repay France the price of so-called lost property (land, equipment, and slaves) in the amount of 150 million gold francs. France, supported by Britain and the United States, imposed a trade embargo against Haiti forcing the new and fragile nation to pay this debt which they finally did in 1947.

Haiti enjoyed a brief period of peace and relative prosperity from 1874 until 1911. During this time artists, writers, and musicians flourished and the nation developed a unique cultural identity, influenced by Voodoo, Christianity, and African traditions. A small community of German émigrés meanwhile established itself and slowly gained control of 80 per cent of Haiti’s international trade as well as its public utilities and port access. This did not sit well with the United States, given the hostile behavior of the Germans in Europe, and so a group of American investors bought control of the National Bank of Haiti, where the nation’s treasure was on deposit. In order to protect the financial interests of these American investors, President Woodrow Wilson agreed to send occupying forces. During this time, the United States exploited its role as Haiti’s legal protector and revived an old law requiring peasants to perform hard labor in lieu of paying road taxes. Between 1915 and 1918, these de facto slaves built 470 miles of paved road, among other projects. In 1919, the Haitians revolted and as many as 15,000 civilians died. To reestablish order, the United States installed a dictator. Then the Great Depression ruined Haiti’s already frail economy and the United States slowly withdrew its forces. From 1934 through 1957, Haiti suffered a prolonged period of political instability until a former Minister of Health and widely respected humanitarian, Dr. Francois Duvalier, was democratically elected president.

It didn’t take long before President Duvalier, “Papa Doc” as he liked to be called, established a dictatorship and intimidated the Haitian people through kidnappings, beatings, and murders by a “volunteer” army called the Tonton Macoutes (after a Voodoo monster). To those living in fear, the Macoutes were called “Dew Breakers” because they usually came in the early morning hours, leaving footprints in the heavy dew. Papa Doc aimed to rid Haiti of its mulatto elite population and this resulted in a mass exodus of the country’s best educated and most skilled people. At the same time, Papa Doc won the favor of many in the black middle class by providing services and utilities – such as water, sewers, and paved roads – to previously neglected neighborhoods. It was from this population that he recruited his “volunteer” Macoutes.

Papa Doc died in 1971 and his 19 year old son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, took power. “Baby Doc” was predictably inept and very corrupt. He pocketed vast sums of public money and foreign aid, and married a glamorous mulatto divorcee in a lavish ceremony. This did not sit well with anyone, including his own mother, so he allowed his wife to send his mother to live in exile. When Pope Jean Paul II visited Haiti in 1983, he was horrified by what he saw and condemned Baby Doc’s regime. Three years later, Baby Doc and his wife fled the country.

The dew breaker referred to in the title, turns out to be a loving father and devoted husband who, after moving to New York, tries to forget his past. The ghosts of his victims, however, follow him and refuse to grant him peace. Award-winning author, Edwige Danticat, evokes the world of denial and acceptance that many Haitian refugees found themselves living in following the brutal Duvalier years. She does this through a collection of interconnected stories, each of which could stand on its own, but together tell the tragic story of a little nation which seems eternally cursed.

Democracy and freedom have a hard time taking root in Haiti: for every good and legally elected president, there seem to be two or three despots poised to take control. In 2006, Rene Preval was elected and showed promise as a legitimate leader. And then the earthquake happened. Is Haiti the realization of Dante’s Inferno here on earth, or is this tiny nation a living, breathing example of the triumph of the human spirit? If we recognize that Columbus’ conquest of Ayiti set in motion 500 years of suffering, the answer, I think, is both, because the Haitian people have a reputation as some of the happiest, most generous people on earth. The bigger question posed by this book, is whether we all recognize that brutality and despotism are totally colorblind, kept at bay only by the rule of law.

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