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7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

All Souls Rising by Madison Smartt Bell


One of the best historical novels I’ve ever read. It’s about the Haitian Revolution—this is the first volume. There are multiple points of view among the white and black people of Haiti. A French doctor comes to Haiti to visit a sister who’s married a Haitian planter and about whom he’s concerned. Dr. Hébert, who becomes involved with a mulatto woman and has a child with her, who’s captured by the rebels and learns about medicinal herbs from Toussaint L’Overature, is the “touchstone” character, the one whose sensibilities are most like those of today’s readers. It was a brilliant decision on Bell’s part to have a white man who was not a Haitian colonial (with economic interests in plantations and slave labor) as an observer/participant, one who is of the same class as the planters (without their interests) but is able to accept human beings on their own merits. I understand he continues through the next two volumes of the trilogy. There is also third person narration that focuses on different characters, including Toussaint who is already old by Haitian slave standards, a Christian, and from a well-run plantation where slaves were not grossly mistreated. There’s some first person narrative by an African named Riau who remembers his homeland (Toussaint was born into slavery in Haiti) and who moves between Toussaint’s group and some more militant and violent groups. The first person narrative is Bell’s attempt, largely successful, to “get inside the head” of the rebels, in the form of an individual who’s intelligent enough to have some insight into the choices the rebels have.

Bell provides ample historical material for the reader to understand the context of the only successful black revolution. It takes place during the unsettled period following the French Revolution. There existed in Haiti at the time not only the same groups of whites as were in the US during slavery (the upper class, who owned land and for whom the institution of slavery is critical, and the middle class whites, who were traders and shopkeepers and had other jobs and professions and whose wealth did not derive from the land), but political groups as well: those conservatives who supported the king (largely the plantation-owning class) as well as various revolutionary supporters. So to some extent French politics played out in Haiti. There was one governing official who deported those Frenchmen who disagreed with him back to France as traitors, and in some cases to the guillotine. There were also black rebels who were loyal to the king.

There’s a year-by-year summary of historical events in an appendix—needed since most readers in English are not very familiar with Haitian history. There’s also an excellent glossary that allows Bell to use French and Creole words in the text because all of them are explained in the glossary. That allows him to initiate the reader into the Voodoo religion and Haitian traditions among whites, Creoles, mulattoes and blacks) as they touch on the events in the novel. It’s extraordinary how successful he is leading readers to understand the multiple points of view. Neither side is monolithic in its interests and values and both the rebels and the defenders are complicated and changing coalitions of individuals and groups with various motivations.

Bell’s narrative also moves back and forth in time, with the novel actually beginning as Toussaint is moved to a secure prison in France in 1802. The events, though, of this first volume mainly take place between 1791 and 1793.

I already have the second volume…

2 Comments:

Blogger Janine & Steve said...

Wow! Now that's some recommendation SuLu. I'll look out for it.

3/15/2008 08:39:00 PM  
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3/18/2008 11:22:00 AM  

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