The Farming of Bones
First edition cover
|Pages||312 pp (hardback)|
|LC Class||PS3554.A5815 F37 1998|
The Farming of Bones begins with narrator Amabelle Desir speaking of her lover, Sebastian Onius. These two Haitians are later separated following the beginning of the 1937 massacre. Amabelle begins a long journey in pursuit of news of her love, and along the way encounters various difficult obstacles.
Explanation of the novel's title
The title The Farming of Bones is alluded to in Chapter 10 when Amabelle refers to the cane life as “travay te pou zo,” or the farming of bones. Working in the cane fields proves to be dangerous and even life-threatening as it scars and mutilates many of the workers. Inundated with references to the past, the story contains many instances where characters are unable to move on. For example, Amabelle constantly dwells upon not only memories of her dead parents, but also memories with Sebastien. In addition, Yves feels guilty for living when Joel saves Yves’s life by pushing him out of the way of Senor Pico’s automobile. Despite being able to survive the massacre and his success in farming, Yves cannot move on, wondering why he was not the one to die not only in the accident, but also during the killings. Furthermore, Don Ignacio fails to forget his involvement in the military regardless of his exile to another country. Decades later, he cannot feel happy for the birth of his granddaughter, for he believes that his losses may be consequences of his past. Many people throughout the story are like this and as a result are like living dead, walking the earth to seek answers to unanswered questions.
Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Edwidge Danticat visited the Massacre River in 1995 and was surprised by the domestic routines taking place. The people at the river were unaware of the brutal killings that had taken place there years ago. Realizing that the horrific occurrences of the 1937 massacre had been forgotten, Danticat was determined to memorialize the victims and their suffering, by telling their stories and spreading knowledge. In 1937, the President of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo, commanded his army to kill all Haitians. The majority were killed with machetes as ordered by Trujillo. Thousands were killed in the process of attempting to return to Haiti. Trujillo’s supposed inspiration for the massacre started when the Dominicans complained of Haitian thefts. He reassured his people that he would stop this treachery. His real motive however was to segregate the two peoples. He wanted to separate the Dominicans from the Haitians to establish more control and provide a clear division between the two countries. With tens of thousands of Haitians dead after five days of killing the result was only that Trujillo's power was weakened. Ultimately, Trujillo was assassinated in 1961.
The Farming of Bones is told in first person narrative through the character of Amabelle Desir. Amabelle narrates in past tense with memories and dreams interlaced within it. The story is not told from the beginning of Amabelle’s life but instead, it encapsulates the period of the life leading to the massacre and her life after. The memories and dreams intermingled within the story gives insight into her character and add to story development. For instance, many of the chapters that consist of a single memory deal with her parents. These memories delve into Amabelle’s haunting past and reveal information about her development as a character. Further comprehension of Amabelle’s life and development as a character is accomplished by the author’s use of second-person narration in Chapter 19, the single time that the character breaks the third wall that separates her from the narrator. For example, Amabelle says:
“At first you are afraid to step behind the waterfall as the water in all its strength pounds down on your shoulders. Still you tiptoe into the cave…”
This is a reflection of Amabelle’s life throughout the story as although she is afraid of what may come, she still searches for Sebastian even with the risk of death closely by her side.
Edwidge Danticat attributes her love for storytelling to those of Haitian women who congregate to tell their stories, known as “kitchen poets.” The style of The Farming of Bones is reminiscent of “kitchen poets.”
“And in Sylvie’s eyes was a longing I knew very well, from the memory of it as it was once carved into my younger face: I will bear anything, carry any load, suffer any shame, walk with eyes to the ground, if only for the very small chance that one day our fates might come to being somewhat closer and I would be granted for all my years of travail and duty an honestly gained life that in some extremely modest way would begin to resemble hers.” (Ch. 41, p. 306) Danticat uses Amabelle to tell the story as if she is an older woman, trying to teach the newer generation about the past in hopes that they can learn from it. In this case, Amabelle intimates her failures of her past and hopes that the younger generation, Sylvie, will be able to learn what Amabelle had.
Major formal strategies
In terms of literary devices, Danticat relies very heavily on symbolism to apply to a more general truth. Another marked symbol in The Farming of Bones is parsley. It is the pronunciation of parsley that determines who lives and who dies in the Dominican Republic. In one instance, parsley is referred to being used to “cleanse” insides as well as outsides and “perhaps the Generalissimo in some larger order was trying to do the same for his country (Ch. 29, p. 203).” In this case, the Generalissimo uses parsley as a determinate of life or death. Furthermore, in another instance, parsley is an ability to conform to others, for the Haitians it is that “their own words reveal who belongs on what side (Ch. 41, p. 304),” the result of which is death. This marked difference that the Haitians are unable to conceal, is like the mole of Felice. The noticeable birthmark of Felice is something that she cannot escape and having it, results in prejudices against her, most specifically Kongo’s inability to accept her worth as a person.
Not only does Danticat utilize dreams as a vehicle of character development, but she also uses dreams as a vehicle for the characters to escape reality and nightmares as a means to haunt them of their past. While Amabelle frequently dreams of her parents drowning in the river, Sebastien dreams of his father’s death in the hurricane. Yves is tortured with nightmares of his father, with his eyes wide open and glazed over, he says, “Papa, don’t die on that plate of food. Please let me take it away (Ch. 22, p. 129).” Although Amabelle, Sebastien, and Yves can try to move on from the past during their daily lives, they cannot escape the truth of their nightmares. However, the characters in The Farming of Bones continue to try to find solace in the comfort of their dreams. Amabelle says, “I looked to my dreams for softness, for a gentler embrace, for relief from the fear of mudslides and blood bubbling out of the riverbed… (Ch. 41, p. 310).” As a refuge from the rigors of real life, dreams serve as “amulets to protect us from evil spells (Ch. 37, p. 265) ” or to protect the Haitians from the harshness of reality. In fact, Man Denise seeks refuge from her life and the pain of losing her children, saying “I’m going to dream up my children (Ch. 33, p. 243).” Although the characters depend on dreams to protect and mollify them, providing an escape from reality, dreams are not always guaranteed and nightmares may actually come to haunt them in their sleep.
Lastly, sugarcane is another important symbol found in the book. One of Amabelle’s recurring dreams is one of the sugar woman. The chains bind the sugar woman and she wears a silver muzzle. This muzzle was given to the sugar woman so that she would not eat the sugarcane. However, despite her confinements, she is dancing. Much like the workers, they come to the Dominican Republic to find work and a better life and stay due to the work that they find in the mills that they cannot find in Haiti. Regardless of their hard work, the workers cannot taste the sweetness of the sugarcane; instead, they are bound by it. In fact, they cannot escape it. Danticat even describes Sebastien with his sweat as thick as sugarcane juice and many of his defining scars a result of working in the cane fields.
Aside from Danticat’s use of symbolism, foreshadowing is also heavily prevalent. For example, the doctors states that “many of us start out as twins in the belly and do away with each other (Ch.4, p.19).” This foreshadows not only the death of Rafael, but also the fate of the Haitians. The Haitians and the Dominican both hail from the same island and struggle to survive among the same resources. 1 However, it is the Dominicans who try to do away with the Haitians in the form of the killings. In addition, the twins serve as further foreshadowing in terms of the Rosalinda’s caul and Rafael’s death. The caul served as an omen of bad luck to come and Rafael’s unexpected death foreshadowed many more deaths, such as the sudden death of Kongo’s son and the unprecedented number of deaths of Haitians.
Set in the Dominican Republic in the 1930s, The Farming of Bones tells the story of a young Haitian girl named Amabelle Desir. Orphaned by the age of 8, Amabelle works for Don Ignacio and his daughter. Although Don Ignacio and his daughter are important figures in Amabelle’s life, it is evident that Amabelle’s life revolves around her lover, Sebastien Onius. After the accidental death of one of Sebastien’s fellow cane workers, the Haitian’s distrust of the Dominican government grows, but this distrust is warranted. With news of the Generalissimo’s intentions to “cleanse the country,” Haitian workers attempt to return to their home country.
When complications separate Amabelle and Sebastien during their attempt to flee, Amabelle is desperate to find what has become of Sebastien. Accompanied by Sebastien’s friend, Yves, Amabelle makes her journey with the help of fellow survivors she encounters along the way. While escaping, the group must divide for their own safety. Upon reaching the town of Dajabon, Amabelle is disappointed to find that Sebastien is not there. While in Dajabon, Dominicans beat and torture Amabelle, Yves, and a fellow Haitian, Tibon, after recognizing their inability to pronounce “perejil” correctly, one of the most prevalent ways that the Dominicans determine the segregation of Haitians. On the verge of death, two remaining members of their group rescue Amabelle and Yves and bring them to the river that they must cross. Unfortunately only Amabelle and Yves survive the dangerous crossing, where they are met at the other side by nuns who nurse them back to health. During the recovery process, Amabelle learns of the other survivors’ story of “kout kouto,” what the Haitians call the massacre.
Once Amabelle and Yves have healed, Yves offers to take Amabelle to his home. Upon arrival of the city, Amabelle and Yves settle in his home and try to rebuild their lives. While Yves finds solace in working in his father’s fields and becomes a successful landowner, Amabelle continues her search for Sebastien. After finding Sebastien’s mother and learning of the truth about Sebastien’s fate, Amabelle returns to her life with Yves. Although Yves and Amabelle try to find comfort in one another, they are unable to fulfill each other’s needs. Twenty years after her escape from Alegria, Amabelle decides to search for a connection to Sebastien by reliving old memories in places of the past. Despite reuniting with Senora Valencia, Amabelle is dissatisfied with the results of her search. In the final scene of the novel, Amabelle enters and rests in the Massacre River, winnowing through a handful of memories. Although distressed by loss, Amabelle finds the spiritual resilience to search for a new beginning.
Amabelle Desir – The Farming of Bones is told through the voice of the young Haitian protagonist, Amabelle Desir. The meanings of her name, “lovely” and “desire” are fitting because they are telling of her amicable nature and her obvious desire to return home to Haiti. However, as the novel progresses the reader discovers that this young girl has both complex desires and definitions of love. With this, the reader depends on Amabelle’s acute observations to fully understand the context of the novel. As she struggles with her the memory of home, and the reality around her, we are astonished by the complexity of this character.
Sebastien – Sebastien is a young Haitian man who is in a romantic relationship with Amabelle. He is constantly yearning for narrative. He attempts to create this narrative by listening attentively to Amabelle’s dreams or having a burning desire to be home. The reader can sometimes sense a nihilistic air as Sebastien rejects his present home in the Dominican Republic. The only people who seem to put him at ease are the people from his home country.
Generalissimo Rafael Leonidas Trujillo – Although the characters do not interact with the President of the Dominican Republic formally, he is an omnipresent figure. His presidency completely dictates the social dynamics of the Dominican Republic.
Kongo – The obvious symbol of Haiti and African roots in this novel. The stories which surround him, whether it be about his son contextualize the reality of working Haitians in the Dominican Republic, who are forced to the bottom of the social hierarchy.
Papi / Don Ignacio– Papi, is the kind man who finds Amabelle shortly after she is abandoned as a young girl. When Amabelle is not with Sebastien, her life is centered around Papi’s home and his relatives.
Senora Valencia – Senora Valencia is Papi’s daughter. Although Amabelle and Senora grow up as “sisters” there is an obvious difference between their respective realities.
Juana and Luis – Juana is a housemaid who has been tending to the Ignacio family for several years. Luis is Juana’s husband. The fact that they both just have a modicum of a voice in this novel is telling of the social hierarchy in the novel. Although they have more power that the working class Haitian, they are not seen as equivalent to people such as the Ignacios.
Don Gilbert and Dona Sabine – As a couple, they serve as an interesting binary to Juana and Luis. Don Gilbert is the owner of a rum company whose family first owned it on Haitian Soil. Through a land exchange, this land became Dominican land. Sabine is a cosmopolitan woman, who has traveled all around the world because of her former dance career. This couple is a symbol of the complex social hierarchy. Although they are originally Haitian, their wealth disguises this. In addition, they are symbolic of the fluidity between the border of these two countries which are made rigid by some characters in the novel.
Senor Pico Duarte – Pico is the epitome of the Trujillo supporters of this time. As a member of the military, he constantly evades anything which would be telling of his roots. Lastly, he is Senora Valencia’s husband.
The Twins – Senora Valencia and Pico give birth to twins. The birth of their children is symbolic because of the varying reactions the characters have towards the children. The twins are crucial because the reactions towards them are evidence of the racial climate during the time.
Beatriz – Beatriz is recognized as the “free spirit” in the novel (Keene). Beatriz symbolizes the modern young woman during the time of Trujillo who goes against the traditional structure.
Doctor Javier- Doctor Javier is representative of a sort of intellectual elite in the Dominican Republic. He speaks both Spanish and Creole. He is close to the Ignacio family and treats Amabelle kindly.
Set in 1937, the story starts out in Alegria which consists of many sugarcane mills that requires workers. However, with the government’s intentions to “cleanse the country,” the story soon travels within the Dominican Republic as far as the Massacre River that borders the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Once Amabelle and Yves reach Haiti, the setting is mostly concentrated in the town that Yves is from, "the Cap". Amabelle returns to Dominican Republic briefly and the story ends with her in the Massacre River.
Importance of remembering the past One of Danticat's major themes is the purpose of the book itself which is to emphasize the importance of remembering the past. Throughout the book the Haitian workers make a point of retelling and remembering all that happened to them. This is because there is a major fear of forgetting the names and the faces of their loved ones.
Literary significance and reception
Published in 1998, The Farming of Bones received numerous critiques raving about Danticat's ability to make history come to life within the readers' minds.
"Every chapter cuts deep, and you feel it…. ‘The Farming of Bones’ always remains focused, with precise, disciplined language, and in doing so, it uncovers moments of raw humanness. This is a book that, confronted with corpses, has the cold-eyed courage to find a smile." - Time magazine
"Sensuously atmospheric...perfectly paced...lushly poetic and erotic...and starkly realistic." - Publishers Weekly
- 1998, United States of America, Soho Press. ISBN 1-56947-126-6, 1998, hardback
- 1999, United States of America, Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0-14-028049-4, paperback
- David Barsamian, "Edwidge Danticat interview", The Progressive, October 2003.
- Penguin reading guide and interview with Edwidge Danticat.
- New York State Writers Institute.
- "The Farming of Bones" page, Powell's.