Friday, April 4, 2014

Stories from Haiti: "The Dew Breaker"

My husband headed to bed before I did last night. Our sons are in New Brunswick for a few days at Rutgers Model Congress. So the house is quiet for once.  At my request,  my husband put the novel I am reading outside our bedroom door. A little light reading? he joked when I told him The Dew Breaker is the story of a torturer from Haiti who immigrated to Brooklyn.

So how have I ended up immersed in my second novel in as many weeks by Edwidge Danicat?

This adventure started when I stumbled upon writer Ann Morgan's blog about reading a book from every country in the world in a year. That feels far too ambitious to me so I settled on the goal of reading novels from every country in the Caribbean. There are a lot more countries than I realized. My multilingual mother, who spends part of her year in South Florida, has decided, at age 83, to learn Creole. She is taking lessons from a teenager she met through her church's after school program. So I figured I would start with a novel from Haiti.

I emailed my mom, who (I should have figured) already knew all about Danicat's work. Danicat immigrated from Haiti at age 12 and now is married and living in New York. My mother mailed me her luminous first novel, Breath Eyes Memory, which I gobbled up in a matter of days while parked in traffic and on hall duty at the high school where I teach. An Oprah's Book Club sensation (where have I been?) it tells the story of a young girl born in Haiti and raised by her aunt who immigrates to New York to be reunited with her mother.

As a high school English teacher, I am always on the lookout for books I can recommend to my students. This one, while compelling and evocative, would be more suitable for twenty-somethings, as it includes details of sexual abuse suffered by both the protagonist and her mother. These incidents are important to understanding what shaped the characters' souls, but I err on the side of caution when recommending outside reading books to my students. The novel, published 10 years ago when Danicat was 35, was a National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist.

My mother and I are now deep into the stories found in The Dew Breaker:  sad, beautiful stories about a man facing the sins of his past with the François 'Papa Doc' Duvalier regime. I don't know where Danicat is leading us with this tale that takes us from Haiti to Brooklyn and back again, but I am intrigued by the journey and grateful to be able to share it with my mother.

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