Our group read "The Farming of Bones" by Edwidge Danticat. This book tells the story of the Haitian genocide that took place in the Dominican Republic in 1937 - something I had no idea existed. When people point to the Dominican Republic and say that the fact that it's so much better off than Haiti is proof that the earthquake is some sort of judgment on Haiti, I have to assume they don't know all the facts.
"The Farming of Bones" tells the story of Anabelle, a young woman who was orphaned at age eight when her parents drowned crossing the river that separated Haiti from the Dominican Republic after taking a day trip to a market there. Anabelle, stranded on the Dominican side, became a slave to a wealthy Dominican family who treated her with kindness. Their kindness would have allowed her to be fully satisfied with her life, had she not fallen in love with a poor Haitian day-laborer, who was beaten and considered sub-human by his Dominican boss. Though she didn't want to admit it, she soon was forced to see that her boyfriend's lot was the norm and her fate was the exception. As a nationalist movement spread through the Dominican Republic, Hatian communities began to be raided. Then the killings started, with Anabelle's boyfriend being an early victim. Anabelle escaped with a few close friends and survived traveling over mountains and through forests with little food and the treat of attack around every corner. She and one other member of their party survived and crossed over the river into Haiti. There Anabelle found her old village and made a life for herself, though she never married. About twenty years later, she went back to her Dominican mistress in search of answers as to what happened and why. Her mistress was just as mystified by the hate as she was. There were no good answers.
My favorite aspect of this book was that it told the story of horrible things that happened to the Haitians, but didn't present the main characters as helpless victims. Some people died, but others used their ingenuity to survive and escape. In fact, Anabelle was portrayed with a deep strength. She empowered those around her as she worked to save her people. This book shows Haitians as strong and enduring despite circumstances.
I also liked the way this book incorporated aspects of Haitian culture and life without being directly educational. It didn't come out and say, "Haitians really respect their elders," but I learned that they did from the way the characters interacted with each other. Through the book I got to see how Catholicism mixes seamlessly with their indigenous religion, how they think about birth and death, and what they value. You can tell the author, a Haitian herself, is just writing what she knows, not trying to teach or preach.
I wouldn't have elementary students read this book because it's a bit graphic, but it's a great reference for me as a teacher. I would consider giving a 5th grade class excerpts to read to give them a sense of how someone from Haiti thinks and expresses himself. This book also inspired me by showing me the value of first-hand accounts. I have Haitian friends that could come talk to my class, providing a far richer experience for them than reading an article or listening to me talk.