In literature, innovation is key to making a novel stand out. Novelists can gain high honor and esteem if they can piece their novel in a unique way. Any novel can have themes, symbolism and metaphors but it is those novels that can use these devices in an indistinguishable way that makes them stand out. In the novel The Farming of Bones by Edwidge Danticat, Danticat uses the twin themes of life and death to piece the story together in an innovative way in that she uses history as a means of keeping the memory and dreams of her deceased family members and her fellow Haitians alive in the reader’s memory.
History can only survive through the retelling and recording of people, places and events. As the main character, Amabelle, faces difficult situations, it is the desire to keep their significance and memory in her mind that pushes her to endure.
In examining the novel, Amabelle is the embodiment of Danticat’s vision to keep the seemingly unimportant people who pass away alive in our memory.
Amabelle is a character that rises against the notion of one man’s viewpoint about famous and unfamous people toward the end of the book: “Famous people never truly die…It is only those nameless and faceless who vanish like smoke into the early morning air” ( Danticat 280). Amabelle challenges that notion to prove that anyone’s life can be preserved even through death. Throughout the novel, there are moments where the reader gets a deeper understanding of those whom have passed away through Amabelle’s descriptions and memories.
Danticat showcases many characters that seem unimportant but are deeply significant in keeping Haitan history alive after death. One such character is Joel. Joel was a sugarcane worker that worked alongside Amabelle’s lover Sebastien. His death was caused by Senor Pico, a famous and wealthy Dominican in the Dominican Republic. Joel’s death had occurred around the time Senor Pico’s son, Rafael, had passed. But with these two deaths, there are sharp contrasts. Senor Pico and his family have a wake, a funeral, elaborately made casket and the memory of his son imprinted in the minds of the Dominican elites in the community. Joel does not have that luxury and his boss will not pay for a burial. As Danticat uses Amabelle to tell the story, Amabelle amasses information about this “insignificant” sugarcane worker including his love named Felice and that he “fell from a great height into a ravine” (Danticat 54). Amabelle is the narrator and protagonist in the story and her Haitian people are of significant importance to her. Even when she learns the most minute details, it gives greater livelihood to a person who passed on. For Amabelle, Joel’s memory can be indelible with the fact that he worked with his father side by side for many cane harvest. Through Joel’s father Kongo, Amabelle learns that Kongo wanted to bury him in his native land but was too much to carry and buried him instead where he died (Danticat 108). In the novel, Amabelle has a true heart for the Haitian people and does not want their memory to die.
In spite of the difficult and painful circumstancing associated with the massacre of Haitians, Amabelle endures and keeps their memory in her recollections. For Danticat, it is so significant that Amabelle has a heart for her people because they needs to be someone who remembers those would otherwise be forgotten. Along with Joel, the Haitians massacred had no papers. They had no one trace their birthplace or legitimacy. Their situation is all the more saddening when a Haitian dies. For if they don’t have any record of whom they are, who does? Danticat uses Amabelle as storyteller, record keeper and memory saver. This is further seen in her years trying to survive the massive killings of the Haitians.
In Amabelle’s many years of trying to survive amidst the massacre of Haitians, Danticat uses her character to keep track of many named and nameless characters whom get murdered. Sometimes Amabelle preserves their lives through gaining information about the person. Other times, it is purely witnessing Haitians that have died in the massacre. This is seen when Yves and her were going to Dajabon so that they could find her lover Sebastien and Sebastien’s sister Mimi and saw a girl that was killed fall out of a cart that Dominicans probably held her in: “From the back of the cart fell a girl, seventeen or eighteen years old. I raised my head to have a better look at her…She was wearing an orange-yellow dress with a cloth of purple madras wrapped around her head. A machete had struck her at the temple and on both her shoulders” (Danticat 168). Danticat once again uses her character Amabelle’s sharp vision to capture the image of a massacred Haitian in the mountains. It might seem insignificant that she does not know her name but it is important that Amabelle keeps sights such as this in her memory so that this person will be remembered. This young girl is one of the many so called “faceless” people that Danticat wants ingrained in our mind.
As the novel progressed into Yves and Amabelle’s journey to the border, they run into other people going along the same voyage. Two of the people that are traveling with them to the border get killed by Dominicans and are duly noted by Amabelle. One of these characters is Tibon, a Haitian with uneven farms. Before he is killed, he tells her of his near death experience with the Dominicans, how he had to stand at the edge of a cliff and make the choice between jumping off the cliff to your death or getting killed by bayonets and machetes. He tells her of the group after group of people that had to jump. Tibon faced many injuries and lived to tell his experience surviving the dangerous waters they fell into. During the moments before he faces death, she recounts to the reader the situation that occurs.
She, Tibon and Yves were in a town inhabited by Dominicans including a group of young Dominican men whom wanted to start a conflict with them. Amabelle describes the scene in which “Tibon thrust his muscular shoulder at one of the youths who was poking the broomstick at his chest” and “encircled the boy’s neck with his more developed arm” burying his teeth into the boy’s ear before “one of the boys grabbed Yves’ machete and plunged it into Tibon’s back” (Danticat 191-192). Tibon is left to die by the Dominican youth who stabbed him and the others whom kick him in the chest. The others that she journeyed with wanted to leave Tibon but Amabelle felt that they “should not leave him” and questioned “Who will bury him?” (Danticat 196). It is these kind of feelings that shows her true heart for people she barely knew but whom have a common ancestry. Amabelle felt that his life had to be remembered in one way or another. This displays her desire to memorialize him for his brave, heroic actions against the enemies trying to kill them. She wanted to give a proper farewell to a person who will likely be forgotten about by the Dominicans and the Haitians.
Another person that Amabelle travels with is Odette, who dies along their journey. She is a woman whom can be seen as a realist within difficult situations and who has a caring heart for Amabelle. Her husband gets shot and killed by a Dominican soldier and Amabelle notes that “she did not struggle but abandoned her body to the war and lack of air.” She also says how Odette had made the choice to die in spite of Amabelle’s desire for Odette to live so that Odette could aid her and Yves in surviving the massive numbers of killings. Amabelle continues on describing Odette’s state, saying her body slipped into death easily with a “relaxed face.” Amabelle met many people along her journey and people like Joel, Odette, and Tibon only have her as their record keeper. Danticat utilizes Amabelle for this purpose in the sense that life and death are such large presences within the book and Amabelle is compiling in memory all those who she has met of her Haitian background and whom have died. She is, in a sense, making their lives immortal. Amabelle wants their lives to transcend death.
As the novel delved into her recovery from her injuries, Amabelle continues to add more information to her growing history of her Haitian people. She learns a great deal from the clinic she recovered at, listening to stories of her fellow Haitians facing persecution. During her recovery, she told her care givers she was not going to die and that Odette and Wilner already died for her (Danticat 213). Amabelle did not want to give up on her life but wanted to continue onward for those whom have passed away. She wanted to persevere and endure for those who were killed directly or indirectly by the massacre of Haitians. In the midst of difficult situations, she needed to keep on living for those whose lives have perished and have been forgotten about.
Towards the ends of the novel, she receives a pretty definite answer to the whereabouts of her lover Sebastien and his sister Mimi. She learns that both have died. Even when she has witnessed or has been directly affected with death, she keeps the memory alive: “The more days go by, the more I think of Joel’s grave. (Of Wilner’s, Odette’s, Mimi’s, and Sebastien’s too.)” (Danticat 265). The lives of those she has encountered are forever grained in her memory. There are not just people who worked for landowners but they are people whom toiled endlessly and furiously.
Along with upholding the memories of those who died or are killed during the massacre, it is through her dreams of her father and mother as well as Sebastien that her will to survive grows. In a sense, she lives vicariously through her imagination. They have passed but her memories of the happier moments with the three of them increase her hopes of finding those she love once again. Dreams are a tangible means of preserving their lives after their death. People do not become faceless and nameless unless one doesn’t write or orate their stories and history to others.
Danticat uses these twin themes of life and death in such an innovative way in that life was used to hold the memory of the dead. The novel deals with the real life historical massacre of Haitians by the Dominicans. In order for Danticat to piece the novel in a new way, she had to use themes of life and death in relation to a large topic of history. People question life after death but there is such a thing. If one can preserve the history of people, including their lives, events, and personalities, then their lives never vanish into the air. Life is such a precious thing to have and so when the Haitians lost their lives due to the Dominicans, they had to be a way of retaining the memories of the future. One cannot have a future if we don’t have a past. Danticat used her character Amabelle to showcase that the past events and people who have passed are significant for the future of these people. Danticat, through Amabelle, gave the people a face and a name. We need to remember those who seem insignificant to others but whose lives are nonetheless important.