|A Review byRebecca James|
|The Dew Breaker By Edwidge Danticat, 2004
The sculpture Ka had created was at once majestic and humble. She had (so she imagined) captured the very essence of her father. Its mahogany surface gleamed, illuminating the fissures across its lowered form, cracks difficult to avoid when working with such a hard wood, cracks she hoped her first patron would accept as natural flaws. Her father rode next to her on the car trip down to Florida to deliver the sculpture, carefully wrapped and taped. When she last viewed it, the masculine figure was crouched, waiting for something unseen, looking down, partially beaten but with hope; the split in the wood seemed to mimic the deep scar that ran the length of her father's cheek.
Father. A powerful word that generates a variety of images: strong, protective, loving, strict, distant, wise, or even cruel. Some fathers are very involved, while others disappear. A simple object, a certain smell may bring a rush of memories to the surface. At some point, however, the transition occurs. As young adults, we begin to recognize that the man we knew or imagined someday knowing is only a sliver of the whole person, that our fathers had lives before us, made decisions that had nothing to do with us, and committed acts that seem completely foreign to the man we remember from our childhoods.
Ka, a young artist, began this transition during that trip to Florida when she discovered that she had been allowed to believe a series of half-truths and lies, lies her father and mother had buried rather than acknowledge themselves. Along with her readers, she realizes that what we have done, what our fathers have done, leaves repercussions we may never see. In her latest novel, Edwidge Danticat, the Oprah-endorsed author of Breath, Eyes, Memory, not only exposes the lies and the life of a man who later became Ka's father, but the ripples of fear that he cruelly created in the victims he left behind.
Set in Haiti in the bloody 1960s and blazing a tortuous track through history up to the present day, The Dew Breaker is less political than illuminating. Danticat explores the human spirit and its amazing ability to section itself off, bury the pieces, and attempt to move on even as the shards pierce its own future. Since Danticat is dealing primarily with universal emotions, the Haitian history she offers as a vehicle for the story is a little disjointed. While it does not detract from the story, I was left wanting to know a bit more about the country that created the dew breaker before I completely digested the story.
Haiti is located on the western tip of the Island of Hispaniola, also home to the Dominican Republic. The country has had a tumultuous past (at best). Ruled by the French in the 1700s, the population is about 95% African (Black) and 5% mixed (White and Black), leading to a long history of race-based economic divisions persisting today, with the mixed-race minority having better access to education, jobs, healthcare, and security. While it was the first Black republic, the country has been subjected to much civil unrest as well as military occupation both internally and by the U.S. Even within the past two decades, the ravages of wars, political changes, and diseases such as AIDS have left the country unstable. Just before the period where Ka's father created terror in his victims, a new ruler, Duvalier, took power attempting to represent Black interests while creating a 98% climate of fear for many people, Black and mixed. He relied on the muscle and arsenal of his "cagoulards" to maintain his power. These brutes would eventually be renamed Tontons Macoutes, the Creole name of the mythical childhood bogeyman.
The novel has an interesting format. Danticat uses a series of loosely-related vignettes told from various perspectives to create a puzzle for the reader. Suddenly, we make the same transition Ka made; we recognize the bogeyman, the dew breaker, for who he will become: Ka's father.
Beatrice is an old Haitian seamstress being interviewed by a young lesbian journalist named Aline. The aging immigrant uses the Creole phrase "chockt lawoze" to describe her torturer and bogeyman. Translated, it refers to someone who breaks through a dewy pre-dawn morning to take you away to be arrested, tortured, killed. Although Ka's father and his victims have moved on physically, even geographically, Aline discovers that "people like Beatrice existed, men and women whose tremendous agonies filled every blank space in their lives. Maybe there were hundreds, even thousands, of people like this, men and women chasing fragments of themselves long lost to others. Maybe Aline herself was one of them." The line of terror continued through Aline, a secondary victim, decades and thousands of miles later, with the recognition of the absence of self at the hands of others.
Ka's father was seduced by the power of the Tontons Macoutes when he was a young man. He found redemption in an improbable place: Anne, the step-sister of one of his victims. Anne's step-brother was a young preacher, based on the real-life Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who raised political support for an alternative to the ruling oppressive forces of Duvalier's successor. He was also the man who, just before he was killed, carved a deep gash into his dew breaker's cheek. Ka's father fled with Anne to the United States, where they raised their daughter, Ka, which means "the good angel," to believe he was a former Haitian prisoner, a victim of the very terror he actually helped create.
So, with the accolades of numerous critics, Danticat, who is from Haiti, paints a picture of the country's history that is as beautifully written as it is emotionally difficult to read. The cruelty within the dew breaker, Ka's father, is one she can only begin to understand as she attempts to pull from him the story of his past, strange to her. She only knows that her quiet, loving father was suddenly and inexplicably driven to destroy the mahogany depiction of her wounded, humbled, and imprisoned father, the one she'd imagined and admired throughout her own life. Readers are privy to the secrets she will uncover. Danticat makes us realize how far we must look to truly understand our fathers, and ourselves.
Rebecca James is an English teacher in Allentown, PA and a summer resident of Rehoboth.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 15, No. 3 April 8, 2005