The Farming of Bones
by Edwidge Danticat
Testimony: An Introduction to
The Farming of Bones
"His name is Sebastien
Onius. Sometimes this is all I know. My back aches now in all those places
that he claimed for himself, arches of bare skin that belonged to him,
pockets where the flesh remains fragile, seared like unhealed burns where
each fallen scab uncovers a deeper wound."
The Dominican Republic and
Haiti. Two countries sharing the same islandone poor, the other
poorer. For decades, Haitians attempting to escape their country's
abject poverty have streamed into the Dominican Republic to work as laborers
in the sugarcane fields or as domestic help. In 1937, longstanding hostility
between the two countries erupted, and Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo Molina
decreed the slaughter of all Haitians on Dominican land. This is the historical
backdrop for The Farming of Bones.
Amabelle, the heroine of Edwidge
Danticat's haunting new novel, and her lover Sebastien are two such
Haitian laborers who find themselves caught in the massacre of 1937. Amabelleorphaned
at a young age when her parents drowned in the river that separates the
two countriesis a housekeeper for Seņora Valencia and her husband
General Pico, who is supremely devoted to Generalissimo Trujillo. Sebastien
cuts cane, the act from which Danticat draws the title of her book. It
is called "the farming of the bones" because after a day in the searing
heat of the fields, anticipating snakes and rats, brushing up against
the razor sharp edges of the cane, the workers find their skin is shredded,
their bones closer to the surface than the day before.
Indeed, The Farming of Bones
abounds with complex shades of meaning. In the first few chapters of the
novel, Amabelle helps Seņora Valencia give birth to twins. When the doctor
finally arrives to check on the newborns' health, he says to Amabelle,
"Many of us start out as twins in the belly and do away with the other."
Once again, Danticat has deftly teased out the duality of language. Haiti
and the Dominican Republic, vying for resources on the same island, are
much like twins in the same belly. The most horrifying example of language
play in the novel is, of course, the treatment of the word perejil, or
parsley. In order to prove to soldiers that they are Dominican, a person
must be able to trill the "r" in the word for parsley. To fail this test
is to become a victim of the slaughter.
While the story that Edwidge
Danticat tellsthat of Amabelle's journey back to Haiti during
the massacreis nightmarish indeed, it is undeniably transcendent.
Amabelle's erotic dreams about Sebastien break through the carnage,
and the narrative is enriched by profound meditations on life, love and
survival. Danticat adeptly portrays the shock of having one's world
disrupted by life's violent capriciousness. Just days before the massacre
begins Sebastien and Amabellelovers who have just begun to help
one another heal from earlier tragedybecome engaged. Separated from
Sebastien by the military mayhem, Amabelle is left to wonder whether or
not he has been killed, and to contemplate love's resiliency. Never
knowing her lover's fate, she struggles to discover peace. She seeks
respite in her relationship with Sebastien's friend Yves, and finds
that the massacre has turned his heart to stone. She searches out Sebastien's
mother, Man Denise, who is a shell of a woman without her son and daughter.
Man Rapadou, Yves' mother, is a pillar of strength. Still, she too
is "farming" her own bones, digging up and confronting demons from years
past. Danticat vividly depicts the strangeness of the survivor's plightthe
gaps left by unanswered questions, the dreams, the lost time. One must
wonder: is Amabelle a survivor, or did she perish at the river along with
her fellow travelers, with the poor cripple Tibon, with Odette and Wilner,
and with the countless others who, unable to trill the "r" in perejil,
were pushed from cliffs into the abyss? Indeed, how does one survive?
For Amabelle, living becomes an act of healing. Each stitch she sews into
a piece of fabric brings her closer to the word survival. And she expounds
the power of testimony. Near the end of the novel, Amabelle listens to
a Haitian tour guide discuss Henry I's citadel. "Famous men never
truly die," he says, "It is only those nameless and faceless who vanish
like smoke into the early morning air."
You do not die if someone remembers
your name. And if there is one thing that Amabelle passionately resolves
to accomplish in the aftermath of the massacre, it is remembering names.
For if she forgets, she knows that all of their stories will be like "a
fish with no tail, a dress with no hem, a drop with no fall, a body in
the sunlight with no shadow." She will remember names. Most of all, she
will remember Sebastien's.
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1. What is the significance of the passage from Judges that opens the novel?
2. After Amabelle births the two babies for Seņora Valencia, Dr. Javier says to her, "Many of us start out as twins in the belly and do away with the other." Does this foreshadow what will come later in the novel? How? Did Dr. Javier know that what he was saying had a deeper meaning? What about Amabelle?
3.As Pico races in his car to see his newborn twins, he hits and kills Joël, a friend of Sebastien's. While Pico and his father-in-law Papi insist that it was an accident, Sebastien and Yves are convinced that it is the beginning of the slaughter of the Haitians. What do you think? What does Amabelle think?
4.Is the death of Seņora Valencia's baby boy just a coincidence, or is it an example of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth"?
5. Amabelle's parents drown during a hurricane, as did Sebastien's father, and in the 1937 slaughter, many Haitians were murdered on the bed of the river dividing the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Discuss the many functions of water in the novel, healing as well as destructive.
6. Do you think that Amabelle knew that the massacre was coming, or was she truly naive about the impending tide of events?
7. In many ways, The Farming of Bones is a meditation on survival. Each character in the novelAmabelle, Sebastien, Father Romain, Man Denise, Man Rapadou, just to name a fewhave different methods of survival. Can you discuss these? Are there any characters in particular that have survived with a better quality of life than others? What does it mean to survive?
8. Were Amabelle's dream sequences an effective narrative technique? Why or why not? Did they give you more insight into her character? Which ones did you find to be the most powerful?
9. How did you feel about Amabelle's relationship with Seņora Valencia? Was it believable? Do you think that Seņora Valencia would have been strong enough to protect Amabelle if she had stayed during the massacre? Were you surprised when Amabelle returned to visit her at the end of the novel?
10. Throughout The Farming of Bonesstarting with the titlewords are given many shades of meaning. What are some examples of this? Discuss the significance of "parsley" in the novel.
11. "Famous men never die, it is only those nameless and faceless that vanish like smoke into the early morning air." Why is this sentence so central to the theme of the novel?
12. "Unclothed, I slipped into the current. . . I looked to my dreams for softness, for a gentler embrace, for relief of the mudslides and blood bubbling out of the riverbed, where it is said the dead add their tears to the river flow." This is from the last page of the book. What is happening here? What lies ahead for Amabelle?
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"A powerful, haunting novel... Every chapter cuts deep, and you feel it. "
"[With] hallucinatory vigor and a sense of mission... Danticat capably evokes the shock with which a small personal world is disrupted by military mayhem. . . The Farming of Bones offers ample confirmation of Edwidge Danticat's considerable talents. "
The New York Times Book Review
"It's a testament to her talent that the novel, while almost unbearably sad, is still a joy to read. "
"Danticat writes in wonderful, evocative prose, and she is especially adept at treading the path between oppression and grace. At times, it's a particularly painful path, but, always, a compelling one. "
The Boston Sunday Globe
"A passionate story... Richly textured, deeply personal details particularize each of Danticat's characters and give poignancy to their lives. Often, her tales take on the quality of legend. "