The Dew Breaker

The Dew Breaker

4.1 28
by Edwidge Danticat
     
 

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From the universally acclaimed author of Breath, Eyes, Memory and Krik? Krak!, a brilliant, deeply moving work of fiction that explores the world of a "dew breaker" - a torturer - a man whose brutal crimes in the country of his birth lie hidden beneath his new American reality.

We meet him late in his life. He is a quiet man, a husband and

Overview

From the universally acclaimed author of Breath, Eyes, Memory and Krik? Krak!, a brilliant, deeply moving work of fiction that explores the world of a "dew breaker" - a torturer - a man whose brutal crimes in the country of his birth lie hidden beneath his new American reality.

We meet him late in his life. He is a quiet man, a husband and father, a hardworking barber, a kindly landlord to the men who live in a basement apartment in his home. He is a fixture in his Brooklyn neighborhood, recognizable by the terrifying scar on his face. As the book unfolds, moving seamlessly between Haiti in the 1960s and New York City today, we enter the lives of those around him: his devoted wife and rebellious daughter; his sometimes unsuspecting, sometimes apprehensive neighbors, tenants, and clients. And we meet some of his victims.

In the book's powerful denouement, we return to the Haiti of the dew breaker's past, to his last, desperate act of violence, and to his first encounter with the woman who will offer him a form of redemption - albeit imperfect - that will change him forever.
The Dew Breaker is a book of interconnected lives - a book of love, remorse, and hope; of rebellions both personal and political; of the compromises we often make in order to move beyond the most intimate brushes with history. Unforgettable, deeply resonant, The Dew Breaker proves once more that in Edwidge Danticat we have a major American writer.

Edwidge Danticat was born in Haiti and moved to the United States when she was twelve. She is the author of several books, including Breath, Eyes, Memory, an Oprah Book Club selection; Krik? Krak!, aNational Book Award finalist; and The Farming of Bones, an American Book Award winner. She is also the editor of The Butterfly's Way: Voices from the Haitian Dyaspora in the United States and The Beacon Best of 2000: Great Writing by Men and Women of All Colors and Cultures.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
Each tale in The Dew Breaker could stand on its own as a beautifully made story, but they come together like jigsaw-puzzle pieces to create a picture of this man's terrible history and his and his victims' afterlife. Some of the puzzle pieces are missing of course, but this is a matter of design. It is a measure of Ms. Danticat's fierce, elliptical artistry that she makes the elisions count as much as her piercing, indelible words. — Michiko Kakutani
USA Today
It's beautifully written fiction about the real-life horror that is Haiti. Seamlessly blending the personal and political, it deals with what happens to a country and its people when mothers and fathers disappear for their political transgressions. —Bob Minzesheimer
The Washington Post
She delivers her most beautiful and arresting prose when describing the most brutal atrocities and their emotional aftermath. In Danticat's hands, pain becomes poetry as a preacher is dragged to the torture chamber of a Haitian jail. He feels his sense of self being left behind, "with bits of his flesh in the ground, morsel by morsel being scraped off by pebbles, rocks, tiny bottle shards, and cracks in the concrete." In reconstructing such specific and personal memories of a brutal political past, Danticat awakens us to the beauty and terror that can exist in everyday life in Haiti. The Dew Breaker is a brilliant book, undoubtedly the best one yet by an enormously talented writer. — Meri Nana-Ama Danquah
Publishers Weekly
Haitian-born Danticat's third novel (after The Farming of Bones and Breath, Eyes, Memory) focuses on the lives affected by a "dew breaker," or torturer of Haitian dissidents under Duvalier's regime. Each chapter reveals the titular man from another viewpoint, including that of his grown daughter, who, on a trip she takes with him to Florida, learns the secret of his violent past and those of the Haitian boarders renting basement rooms in his Brooklyn home. This structure allows Danticat to move easily back and forth in time and place, from 1967 Haiti to present-day Florida, tracking diverse threads within the larger narrative. Some readers may think that what she gains in breadth she loses in depth; this is a slim book, and Danticat does not always stay in one character's mind long enough to fully convey the complexities she seeks. The chapters-most of which were published previously as stories, with the first three appearing in the New Yorker-can feel more like evocative snapshots than richly textured portraits. The slow accumulation of details pinpointing the past's effects on the present makes for powerful reading, however, and Danticat is a crafter of subtle, gorgeous sentences and scenes. As the novel circles around the dew breaker, moving toward final episodes in which, as a young man and already dreaming of escape to the U.S., he performs his terrible work, the impact on the reader hauntingly, ineluctably grows. 60,000 first printing. (Mar. 15) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
For her latest novel, the Haitian-born Danticat draws on her early childhood during the Duvaliers' dictatorships. Dew breaker was a name given to members of the tonton macouts, who tortured and killed Haitians on behalf of the Duvaliers; Danticat's protagonist gained special notoriety for his barbarity. After the collapse of Baby Doc Duvalier's regime, he fled to New York City, but neither he nor his victims can escape the past. Though the dew breaker is the centerpiece of the novel, Danticat successfully integrates his story with the stories of those who survived his brutality-and those whose family members did not. The clear and resonant prose moves easily from past to present (and back again), but the past is this novel's strongest focus. Remembering his vicious tactics, one victim remarks, "You never know anyone as intimately as you know someone like this"-a peculiar intimacy Danticat explores before ending with a surprising twist; the dew breaker marries his last victim's sister. This tour de force will certainly earn Danticat the same high acclaim she gained from her three previous works, which include National Book Award finalist Krik? Krak! Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/03.]-Faye A. Chadwell, Univ. of Oregon Lib., Eugene Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A torturer-in-hiding examined from multiple angles by family and victims. In this third novel from Danticat (The Farming of Bones, 1998, etc.), the past has a way of intruding on everyday life no matter how all of the characters try to stop it. Of course, when the past is as horrific as it is here, that should come as no surprise. The title comes from a Haitian term for torturer, the black-hearted Tonton Macoutes who enforced the Duvalier regime (" 'They'd also come before dawn, as the dew was settling on the leaves, and they'd take you away' "). The particular dew breaker at the heart of this story is an old man when we first meet him, on a trip he's taking with his artist daughter down to Florida to deliver a sculpture she'd been commissioned to make by a famous Haitian-American actress. Each chapter brings another view of this same man, who escaped his crimes in Haiti to hide out as a barber in Brooklyn, and each is related by different people who knew him-his wife, a lover, one of his victims. The structure, however, isn't necessarily one of slowly revealed mystery, an approach that could have cheapened the tale's formidable emotional impact. Even though we learn more and more about the dew breaker as the story progresses-and by the end have been firsthand witnesses to his foul methods-Danticat seems ultimately less interested in him than in those around him, those who speak personally about the suffering he caused. It's a wise choice, in that there is comparatively little that can be learned from practitioners of evil, whose motives usually come down to simple desires for money or power. Danticat's voice is that of a seasoned veteran, her pages wise and saddened, struggling on "thependulum between regret and forgiveness." Searing fiction with the lived-in feel of the best memoir. First printing of 60,000. Agent: Nicole Aragi/Aragi Inc.
From the Publisher
“Courageous. . . . Beautiful. . . . The Dew Breaker is brilliant book, undoubtedly the best one yet by an enormously talented writer.” —The Washington Post Book World

“Ms. Danticat’s most persuasive, organic performance yet. . . . Each tale in The Dew Breaker could stand on its own as a beautifully made story, but they come together like jigsaw-puzzle pieces to create a picture of this man's terrible history and his and his victims' afterlife.” —The New York Times

“Filled with quiet intensity and elegant, thought-provoking prose. . . . An elegiac and powerful novel with a fresh presentation of evil and the healing potential of forgiveness.” —People

“Luminous. . . . This is a tale of crime and punishment in the great tradition of Dostoevsky.” —The Baltimore Sun

“A devastating story of love, delusion, and history.” —O, The Oprah Magazine

Danticat’s gift is to combine both sympathy and clarity in a moral tangle that becomes as tight as a Haitian community.” —Time

“Breathtaking . . . With terrifying wit and flowered pungency, Edwidge Danticat has managed over the past 10 years to portray the torment of the Haitian people . . . In The Dew Breaker, Danticat has written a Haitian truth: prisoners all, even the jailers.” –The New York Times Book Review

“Danticat [is] surely one of contemporary fiction’s most sensitive conveyors of hope’s bittersweet persistence in the midst of poverty and violence.” –The Miami Herald

“Thrillingly topical . . . [The Dew Breaker] shines. . . . Danticat leads her readers into the underworld. It’s furnished like home.” –Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Stunning . . . Beautifully written fiction [that] seamlessly blend[s] the personal and political, [and] asks questions about shame and guilt, forgiveness and redemption, and the legacy of violence . . . haunting.” –USA Today

“Fascinating. . . . Danticat is a fine and serious fiction writer who has slowly grown as an artist with each book she has written.” –The Chicago Tribune

“In its varied characters, its descriptive power and its tightly linked images and themes, [The Dew Breaker] is a rewarding and affecting read, rich with insights not just about Haiti but also about the human condition.” –San Francisco Chronicle

“[The Dew Breaker] is, most profoundly, about love’s healing powers. From its marvelous descriptions of place to the gentle opening up of characters, this is a book that engages the imagination.” –Elle

“With her grace and her imperishable humanity . . . [Danticat] makes sadness beautiful.” –The New York Observer

“Danticat has an emotional imagination capable of evoking empathy for both predator and prey.” –Entertainment Weekly

“With characteristic lyricism and grace, Danticat probes the painful legacy of a time when sons turned against their fathers, children were orphaned, and communities were torn apart.” –The Philadelphia Inquirer

“Delicate and poetic . . . Danticat [is] more than a storyteller, she’s a writer. . . . Her voice is like an X-Acto knife–precise, sharp and perfect for carving out small details.” –The Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Filled with quiet intensity and elegant, thought-provoking prose . . . An elegiac and powerful novel with a fresh presentation of evil and the healing potential of forgiveness.” –People

“[Danticat] fuses the beauty and tragedy of her native land, a land her characters want to forget and remember all at once.” –Ebony

“In these stories Edwidge Danticat continues to speak eloquently for those who in losing their sorrowful homeland have lost their voices.” –The Boston Globe

“Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat presents simple truths…this, the novelist seems to be saying is how you understand; here is the primer for survival.” –The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780349117898
Publisher:
Little, Brown Book Group Limited
Publication date:
01/01/2004
Pages:
224
Product dimensions:
5.28(w) x 8.43(h) x 0.63(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Book of the Dead

My father is gone. I’m slouched in a cast-aluminum chair across from two men, one the manager of the hotel where we’re staying and the other a policeman. They’re both waiting for me to explain what’s become of him, my father.

The hotel manager—mr. flavio salinas, the plaque on his office door reads—has the most striking pair of chartreuse eyes I’ve ever seen on a man with an island Spanish lilt to his voice.

The police officer, Officer Bo, is a baby-faced, short, white Floridian with a potbelly.

“Where are you and your daddy from, Ms. Bienaimé?” Officer Bo asks, doing the best he can with my last name. He does such a lousy job that, even though he and I and Salinas are the only people in Salinas’ office, at first I think he’s talking to someone else.

I was born and raised in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, and have never even been to my parents’ birthplace. Still, I answer “Haiti” because it is one more thing I’ve always longed to have in common with my parents.

Officer Bo plows forward with, “You all the way down here in Lakeland from Haiti?”

“We live in New York,” I say. “We were on our way to Tampa.”

“To do what?” Officer Bo continues. “Visit?”

“To deliver a sculpture,” I say. “I’m an artist, a sculptor.”

I’m really not an artist, not in the way I’d like to be. I’m more of an obsessive wood-carver with a single subject thus far—my father.

My creative eye finds Manager Salinas’ office gaudy. The walls are covered with orange-and-green wallpaper, briefly interrupted by a giant gold leaf–bordered print of a Victorian cottage that resembles the building we’re in.

Patting his light green tie, which brings out even more the hallucinatory shade of his eyes, Manager Salinas reassuringly tells me, “Officer Bo and I will do our best.”

We start out with a brief description of my father: “Sixty-five, five feet eight inches, one hundred and eighty pounds, with a widow’s peak, thinning salt-and-pepper hair, and velvet-brown eyes—”

“Velvet?” Officer Bo interrupts.

“Deep brown, same color as his complexion,” I explain.

My father has had partial frontal dentures since he fell off his and my mother’s bed and landed on his face ten years ago when he was having one of his prison nightmares. I mention that too. Just the dentures, not the nightmares. I also bring up the blunt, ropelike scar that runs from my father’s right cheek down to the corner of his mouth, the only visible reminder of the year he spent in prison in Haiti.

“Please don’t be offended by what I’m about to ask,” Officer Bo says. “I deal with an older population here, and this is something that comes up a lot when they go missing. Does your daddy have any kind of mental illness, senility?”

I reply, “No, he’s not senile.”

“You have any pictures of your daddy?” Officer Bo asks.

My father has never liked having his picture taken. We have only a few of him at home, some awkward shots at my different school graduations, with him standing between my mother and me, his hand covering his scar. I had hoped to take some pictures of him on this trip, but he hadn’t let me. At one of the rest stops I bought a disposable camera and pointed it at him anyway. As usual, he protested, covering his face with both hands like a little boy protecting his cheeks from a slap. He didn’t want any more pictures taken of him for the rest of his life, he said, he was feeling too ugly.

“That’s too bad,” Officer Bo offers at the end of my too lengthy explanation. “He speaks English, your daddy? Can he ask for directions, et cetera?”

“Yes,” I say.

“Is there anything that might make your father run away from you, particularly here in Lakeland?” Manager Salinas asks. “Did you two have a fight?”

I had never tried to tell my father’s story in words before now, but my first completed sculpture of him was the reason for our trip: a three-foot mahogany figure of my father naked, kneeling on a half-foot-square base, his back arched like the curve of a crescent moon, his downcast eyes fixed on his very long fingers and the large palms of his hands. It was hardly revolutionary, rough and not too detailed, minimalist at best, but it was my favorite of all my attempted representations of my father. It was the way I had imagined him in prison.

The last time I had seen my father? The previous night, before falling asleep. When we pulled our rental car into the hotel’s hedge-bordered parking lot, it was almost midnight. All the restaurants in the area were closed. There was nothing to do but shower and go to bed.

“It’s like paradise here,” my father had said when he’d seen our tiny room. It had the same orange-and-green wallpaper as Salinas’ office, and the plush emerald carpet matched the walls. “Look, Ka,” he said, his deep, raspy voice muted with exhaustion, “the carpet is like grass under our feet.”

He’d picked the bed closest to the bathroom, removed the top of his gray jogging suit, and unpacked his toiletries. Soon after, I heard him humming loudly, as he always did, in the shower.

I checked on the sculpture, just felt it a little bit through the bubble padding and carton wrapping to make sure it was still whole. I’d used a piece of mahogany that was naturally flawed, with a few superficial cracks along what was now the back. I’d thought these cracks beautiful and had made no effort to sand or polish them away, as they seemed like the wood’s own scars, like the one my father had on his face. But I was also a little worried about the cracks. Would they seem amateurish and unintentional, like a mistake? Could the wood come apart with simple movements or with age? Would the client be satisfied?

I closed my eyes and tried to picture the client to whom I was delivering the sculpture: Gabrielle Fonteneau, a Hai- tian American woman about my age, the star of a popular television series and an avid art collector. My friend Céline Benoit, a former colleague at the junior high school where I’m a substitute art teacher, had grown up with Gabrielle Fonteneau in Tampa and on a holiday visit home had shown Gabrielle Fonteneau a snapshot of my Father piece and had persuaded her to buy it.

Gabrielle Fonteneau was spending the week away from Hollywood at her parents’ house in Tampa. I took some time off, and both my mother and I figured that my father, who watched a lot of television, both at home and at his Nostrand Avenue barbershop, would enjoy meeting Gabrielle Fonteneau too. But when I woke up, my father was gone and so was the sculpture.

I stepped out of the room and onto the balcony overlooking the parking lot. It was a hot and muggy morn- ing, the humid air laden with the smell of the freshly mowed tropical grass and sprinkler-showered hibiscus bordering the parking lot. My rental car too was gone. I hoped my father was driving around trying to find us some breakfast and would explain when he got back why he’d taken the sculpture with him, so I got dressed and waited. I watched a half hour of local morning news, smoked five mentholated cigarettes even though we were in a nonsmoking room, and waited some more.

All that waiting took two hours, and I felt guilty for having held back so long before going to the front desk to ask, “Have you seen my father?”

I feel Officer Bo’s fingers gently stroking my wrist, perhaps to tell me to stop talking. Up close Officer Bo smells like fried eggs and gasoline, like breakfast at the Amoco.

“I’ll put the word out with the other boys,” he says. “Salinas here will be in his office. Why don’t you go on back to your hotel room in case your daddy shows up there?”

Back in the room, I lie in my father’s unmade bed. The sheets smell like his cologne, an odd mix of lavender and lime that I’ve always thought too pungent, but that he likes nonetheless.

I jump up when I hear the click from the electronic key in the door. It’s the maid. She’s a young Cuban woman who is overly polite, making up for her lack of English with deferential gestures: a great big smile, a nod, even a bow as she backs out of the room. She reminds me of my mother when she has to work on non-Haitian clients at her beauty shop, how she pays much more attention to those clients, forcing herself to laugh at jokes she barely understands and smiling at insults she doesn’t quite grasp, all to avoid being forced into a conversation, knowing she couldn’t hold up her end very well.

It’s almost noon when I pick up the phone and call my mother at the salon. One of her employees tells me that she’s not yet returned from the Mass she attends every day. After the Mass, if she has clients waiting, she’ll walk the twenty blocks from the church to the salon. If she has no appointments, then she’ll let her workers handle the walk-ins and go home for lunch. This was as close to retirement as my mother would ever come. This routine was her dream when she first started the shop. She had always wanted a life with room for daily Mass and long walks and the option of sometimes not going to work.

I call my parents’ house. My mother isn’t there either, so I leave the hotel number on the machine.

“Please call as soon as you can, Manman,” I say. “It’s about Papa.”

It’s early afternoon when my mother calls back, her voice cracking with worry. I had been sitting in that tiny hotel room, eating chips and candy bars from the vending ma-chines, chain-smoking and waiting for something to happen, either for my father, Officer Bo, or Manager Salinas to walk into the room with some terrible news or for my mother or Gabrielle Fonteneau to call. I took turns imagining my mother screaming hysterically, berating both herself and me for thinking this trip with my father a good idea, then envisioning Gabrielle Fonteneau calling to say that we shouldn’t have come on the trip. It had all been a joke. She wasn’t going to buy a sculpture from me after all, especially one I didn’t have.

“Where Papa?” Just as I expected, my mother sounds as though she’s gasping for breath. I tell her to calm down, that nothing bad has happened. Papa’s okay. I’ve just lost sight of him for a little while.

“How you lost him?” she asks.

“He got up before I did and disappeared,” I say.

“How long he been gone?”

I can tell she’s pacing back and forth in the kitchen, her slippers flapping against the Mexican tiles. I can hear the faucet when she turns it on, imagine her pushing a glass underneath it and filling it up. I hear her sipping the water as I say, “He’s been gone for hours now. I don’t even believe it myself.”

“You call police?”

Now she’s probably sitting at the kitchen table, her eyes closed, her fingers sliding back and forth across her forehead. She clicks her tongue and starts humming one of those mournful songs from the Mass, songs that my father, who attends church only at Christmas, picks up from her and also hums to himself in the shower.

My mother stops humming just long enough to ask, “What the police say?”

“To wait, that he’ll come back.”

There’s a loud tapping on the line, my mother thumping her fingers against the phone’s mouthpiece; it gives me a slight ache in my ear.

“He come back,” she says with more certainty than either Officer Bo or Manager Salinas. “He not leave you like that.”

I promise to call my mother hourly with an update, but I know she’ll call me sooner than that, so I dial Gabri- elle Fonteneau’s cell phone. Gabrielle Fonteneau’s voice sounds just as it does on television, but more silken, nuanced, and seductive without the sitcom laugh track.

“To think,” my father once said while watching her show, in which she plays a smart-mouthed nurse in an inner-city hospital’s maternity ward. “A Haitian-born actress with her own American television show. We have really come far.”

“So nice of you to come all this way to personally deliver the sculpture,” Gabrielle Fonteneau says. She sounds like she’s in a place with cicadas, waterfalls, palm trees, and citronella candles to keep the mosquitoes away. I realize that I too am in such a place, but I’m not able to enjoy it.

“Were you told why I like this sculpture so much?” Gabrielle Fonteneau asks. “It’s regal and humble at the same time. It reminds me of my own father.”

I hadn’t been trying to delve into the universal world of fathers, but I’m glad my sculpture reminds Gabrielle Fonteneau of her father, for I’m not beyond the spontaneous fanaticism inspired by famous people, whose breezy declarations seem to carry so much more weight than those of ordinary mortals. I still had trouble believing I had Gabrielle Fonteneau’s cell number, which Céline Benoit had made me promise not to share with anyone else, not even my father.

My thoughts are drifting from Gabrielle Fonteneau’s father to mine when I hear her say, “So when will you get here? You have the directions, right? Maybe you can join us for lunch tomorrow, at around twelve.”

“We’ll be there,” I say.

But I’m no longer so certain.

My father loves museums. When he’s not working at his barbershop, he’s often at the Brooklyn Museum. The Ancient Egyptian rooms are his favorites.

“The Egyptians, they was like us,” he likes to say. The Egyptians worshiped their gods in many forms, fought among themselves, and were often ruled by foreigners. The pharaohs were like the dictators he had fled, and their queens were as beautiful as Gabrielle Fonteneau. But what he admires most about the Ancient Egyptians is the way they mourn their dead.

“They know how to grieve,” he’d say, marveling at the mummification process that went on for weeks but re-sulted in corpses that survived thousands of years.

My whole adult life, I have struggled to find the proper manner of sculpting my father, a quiet and distant man who only came alive while standing with me most of the Saturday mornings of my childhood, mesmerized by the golden masks, the shawabtis, and the schist tablets, Isis, Nefertiti, and Osiris, the jackal-headed ruler of the underworld.

The sun is setting and my mother has called more than a dozen times when my father finally appears in the hotel room doorway. He looks like a much younger man and appears calm and rested, as if bronzed after a long day at the beach.

“Too smoky in here,” he says.

I point to my makeshift ashtray, a Dixie cup filled with tobacco-dyed water and cigarette butts.

“Ka, let your father talk to you.” He fans the smoky air with his hands, walks over to the bed, and bends down to unlace his sneakers. “Yon ti koze, a little chat.”

“Where were you?” I feel my eyelids twitching, a nervous reaction I inherited from my epileptic mother. “Why didn’t you leave a note? And Papa, where is the sculpture?”

“That is why we must chat,” he says, pulling off his sand-filled sneakers and rubbing the soles of his large, calloused feet each in turn. “I have objections.”

He’s silent for a long time, concentrating on his foot massage, as though he’d been looking forward to it all day.

“I’d prefer you not sell that statue,” he says at last. Then he turns away, picks up the phone, and calls my mother.

“I know she called you,” he says to her in Creole. “She panicked. I was just walking, thinking.”

I hear my mother loudly scolding him, telling him not to leave me again. When he hangs up, he grabs his sneakers and puts them back on.

“Where’s the sculpture?” My eyes are twitching so badly now I can barely see.

“We go,” he says. “I take you to it.”

We walk out to the parking lot, where the hotel sprinkler is once more at work, spouting water onto the grass and hedges like centrifugal rain. The streetlights are on now, looking brighter and brighter as the dusk deepens around them. New hotel guests are arriving. Others are leaving for dinner, talking loudly as they walk to their cars.

As my father maneuvers our car out of the parking lot, I tell myself that he might be ill, mentally ill, even though I’d never detected any signs of it before, beyond his prison nightmares.

When I was eight years old and my father had the measles for the first time in his life, I overheard him say to a customer on the phone, “Maybe serious. Doctor tell me, at my age, measles can kill.”

This was the first time I realized that my father could die. I looked up the word “kill” in every dictionary and encyclopedia at school, trying to understand what it really meant, that my father could be eradicated from my life.

My father stops the car on the side of the highway near a man-made lake, one of those marvels of the modern tropical city, with curved stone benches surrounding a stagnant body of water. There’s scant light to see by except a half-moon. Stomping the well-manicured grass, my father heads toward one of the benches. I sit down next to him, letting my hands dangle between my legs.

Here I am a little girl again, on some outing with my father, like his trips to the botanic garden or the zoo or the Egyptian statues at the museum. Again, I’m there simply because he wants me to be. I knew I was supposed to learn something from these childhood outings, but it took me years to realize that ultimately my father was doing his best to be like other fathers, to share as much of himself with me as he could.

I glance over at the lake. It’s muddy and dark, and there are some very large pink fishes bobbing back and forth near the surface, looking as though they want to leap out and trade places with us.

“Is this where the sculpture is?” I ask.

“In the water,” he says.

“Okay,” I say calmly. But I know I’m already defeated. I know the piece is already lost. The cracks have probably taken in so much water that the wood has split into several chunks and plunged to the bottom. All I can think of saying is something glib, something I’m not even sure my father will understand.

“Please know this about yourself,” I say. “You’re a very harsh critic.”

My father attempts to smother a smile. He scratches his chin and the scar on the side of his face, but says nothing. In this light the usually chiseled and embossed-looking scar appears deeper than usual, yet somehow less threatening, like a dimple that’s spread out too far.

Anger is a wasted emotion, I’ve always thought. My parents would complain to each other about unjust politics in New York, but they never got angry at my grades, at all the Cs I got in everything but art classes, at my not eating my vegetables or occasionally vomiting my daily spoonful of cod-liver oil. Ordinary anger, I’ve always thought, is useless. But now I’m deeply angry. I want to hit my father, beat the craziness out of his head.

“Ka,” he says, “I tell you why I named you Ka.”

Yes, he’d told me, many, many times before. Now does not seem like a good time to remind me, but maybe he’s hoping it will calm me, keep me from hating him for the rest of my life.

“Your mother not like the name at all,” he says. “She say everybody tease you, people take pleasure repeating your name, calling you Kaka, Kaka, Kaka.”

This too I had heard before.

“Okay,” I interrupt him with a quick wave of my hands. “I’ve got it.”

“I call you Ka,” he says, “because in Egyptian world—”

A ka is a double of the body, I want to complete the sentence for him—the body’s companion through life and after life. It guides the body through the kingdom of the dead. That’s what I tell my students when I overhear them referring to me as Teacher Kaka.

“You see, ka is like soul,” my father now says. “In Haiti is what we call good angel, ti bon anj. When you born, I look at your face, I think, here is my ka, my good angel.”

I’m softening a bit. Hearing my father call me his good angel is the point at which I often stop being apathetic.

“I say rest in Creole,” he prefaces, “because my tongue too heavy in English to say things like this, especially older things.”

“Fine,” I reply defiantly in English.

“Ka,” he continues in Creole, “when I first saw your statue, I wanted to be buried with it, to take it with me into the other world.”

“Like the Ancient Egyptians,” I continue in English.

He smiles, grateful, I think, that in spite of everything, I can still appreciate his passions.

“Ka,” he says, “when I read to you, with my very bad accent, from The Book of the Dead, do you remember how I made you read some chapters to me too?”

But this recollection is harder for me to embrace. I had been terribly bored by The Book of the Dead. The images of dead hearts being placed on scales and souls traveling aimlessly down fiery underground rivers had given me my own nightmares. It had seemed selfish of him not to ask me what I wanted to listen to before going to bed, what I wanted to read and have read to me. But since he’d recovered from the measles and hadn’t died as we’d both feared, I’d vowed to myself to always tolerate, even indulge him, letting him take me places I didn’t enjoy and read me things I cared nothing about, simply to witness the joy they gave him, the kind of bliss that might keep a dying person alive. But maybe he wasn’t going to be alive for long. Maybe this is what this outing is about. Perhaps my “statue,” as he called it, is a sacrificial offering, the final one that he and I would make together before he was gone.

“Are you dying?” I ask my father. It’s the one explanation that would make what he’s done seem insignificant or even logical. “Are you ill? Are you going to die?”

What would I do now, if this were true? I’d find him the best doctor, move back home with him and my mother. I’d get a serious job, find a boyfriend, and get married, and I’d never complain again about his having dumped my sculpture in the lake.

Like me, my father tends to be silent a moment too long during an important conversation and then say too much when less should be said. I listen to the wailing of crickets and cicadas, though I can’t tell where they’re coming from. There’s the highway, and the cars racing by, the half-moon, the lake dug up from the depths of the ground—with my sculpture now at the bottom of it, the allée of royal palms whose shadows intermingle with the giant fishes on the surface of that lake, and there is me and my father.

“Do you recall the judgment of the dead,” my father speaks up at last, “when the heart of a person is put on a scale? If it’s heavy, the heart, then this person cannot enter the other world.”

It is a testament to my upbringing, and perhaps the Kaka and good angel story has something to do with this as well, that I remain silent now, at this particular time.

“I don’t deserve a statue,” my father says. But at this very instant he does look like one, like the Madonna of humility, contemplating her losses in the dust, or an Ancient Egyptian funerary priest, kneeling with his hands prayerfully folded on his lap.

“Ka,” he says, “when I took you to the Brooklyn Museum, I would stand there for hours admiring them. But all you noticed was how there were pieces missing from them, eyes, noses, legs, sometimes even heads. You always noticed more what was not there than what was.”

Of course, this way of looking at things was why I ultimately began sculpting in the first place, to make statues that would amaze my father even more than these ancient relics.

“Ka, I am like one of those statues,” he says.

“An Ancient Egyptian?” I hear echoes of my loud, derisive laugh only after I’ve been laughing for a while. It’s the only weapon I have now, the only way I know to take my revenge on my father.

“Don’t do that,” he says, frowning, irritated, almost shouting over my laughter. “Why do that? If you are mad, let yourself be mad. Why do you always laugh like a clown when you are angry?”

I tend to wave my hands about wildly when I laugh, but I don’t notice I’m doing that now until he reaches over to grab them. I quickly move them away, but he ends up catching my right wrist, the same wrist Officer Bo had stroked earlier to make me shut up. My father holds on to it so tightly now that I feel his fingers crushing the bone, almost splitting it apart, and I can’t laugh anymore.

“Let go,” I say, and he releases my wrist quickly. He looks down at his own fingers, then lowers his hand to his lap.

My wrist is still throbbing. I keep stroking it to relieve some of the pain. It’s the ache there that makes me want to cry more than anything, not so much this sudden, uncharacteristic flash of anger from my father.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I did not want to hurt you. I did not want to hurt anyone.”

I keep rubbing my wrist, hoping he’ll feel even sorrier, even guiltier for grabbing me so hard, but even more for throwing away my work.

“Ka, I don’t deserve a statue,” he says again, this time much more slowly, “not a whole one, at least. You see, Ka, your father was the hunter, he was not the prey.”

I stop stroking my wrist, sensing something coming that might hurt much more. He’s silent again. I don’t want to prod him, feed him any cues, urge him to speak, but finally I get tired of the silence and feel I have no choice but to ask, “What are you talking about?”

I immediately regret the question. Is he going to explain why he and my mother have no close friends, why they’ve never had anyone over to the house, why they never speak of any relatives in Haiti or anywhere else, or have never returned there or, even after I learned Creole from them, have never taught me anything else about the country beyond what I could find out on my own, on the television, in newspapers, in books? Is he about to tell me why Manman is so pious? Why she goes to daily Mass? I am not sure I want to know anything more than the little they’ve chosen to share with me all these years, but it is clear to me that he needs to tell me, has been trying to for a long time.

“We have a proverb,” he continues. “One day for the hunter, one day for the prey. Ka, your father was the hunter, he was not the prey.”

Each word is now hard-won as it leaves my father’s mouth, balanced like those hearts on the Ancient Egyptian scales.

“Ka, I was never in prison,” he says.

“Okay,” I say, sounding like I am fourteen again, chanting from what my mother used to call the meaningless adolescent chorus, just to sound like everyone else my age.

“I was working in the prison,” my father says. And I decide not to interrupt him again until he’s done.

Stranded in the middle of this speech now, he has to go on. “It was one of the prisoners inside the prison who cut my face in this way,” he says.

My father now points to the long, pitted scar on his right cheek. I am so used to his hands covering it up that this new purposeful motion toward it seems dramatic and extreme, almost like raising a veil.

“This man who cut my face,” he continues, “I shot and killed him, like I killed many people.”

I’m amazed that he managed to say all of this in one breath, like a monologue. I wish I too had had some rehearsal time, a chance to have learned what to say in response.

There is no time yet, no space in my brain to allow for whatever my mother might have to confess. Was she huntress or prey? A thirty-year-plus disciple of my father’s coercive persuasion? She’d kept to herself even more than he had, like someone who was nurturing a great pain that she could never speak about. Yet she had done her best to be a good mother to me, taking charge of feeding and clothing me and making sure my hair was always combed, leaving only what she must have considered my intellectual development to my father.

When I was younger, she’d taken me to Mass with her on Sundays. Was I supposed to have been praying for my father all that time, the father who was the hunter and not the prey?

I think back to “The Negative Confession” ritual from The Book of the Dead, a ceremony that was supposed to take place before the weighing of hearts, giving the dead a chance to affirm that they’d done only good things in their lifetime. It was one of the chapters my father read to me most often. Now he was telling me I should have heard something beyond what he was reading. I should have removed the negatives.

“I am not a violent man,” he had read. “I have made no one weep. I have never been angry without cause. I have never uttered any lies. I have never slain any men or women. I have done no evil.”

And just so I will be absolutely certain of what I’d heard, I ask my father, “And those nightmares you were always having, what were they?”

“Of what I,” he says, “your father, did to others.”

Another image of my mother now fills my head, of her as a young woman, a woman my age, taking my father in her arms. At what point did she decide that she loved him? When did she know that she was supposed to have despised him?

“Does Manman know?” I ask.

“Yes,” he says. “I explained, after you were born.”

I am the one who drives the short distance back to the hotel. The ride seems drawn out; the cars in front of us appear to be dawdling. I honk impatiently, even when everyone except me is driving at a normal speed. My father is silent, not even telling me, as he has always done whenever he’s been my passenger, to calm down, to be careful, to take my time.

As we are pulling into the hotel parking lot, I realize that I haven’t notified Officer Bo and Manager Salinas that my father has been found. I decide that I will call them from my room. Then, before we leave the car, my father says, “Ka, no matter what, I’m still your father, still your mother’s husband. I would never do these things now.”

And this to me is as meaningful a declaration as his other confession. It was my first inkling that maybe my father was wrong in his own representation of his former life, that maybe his past offered more choices than being either hunter or prey.

When we get back to the hotel room, I find messages from both Officer Bo and Manager Salinas. Their shifts are over, but I leave word informing them that my father has returned.

While I’m on the phone, my father slips into the bathroom and runs the shower at full force. He is not humming.

When it seems he’s never coming out, I call my mother at home in Brooklyn.

“Manman, how do you love him?” I whisper into the phone.

My mother is clicking her tongue and tapping her fingers against the mouthpiece again. Her soft tone makes me think I have awakened her from her sleep.

“He tell you?” she asks.

“Yes,” I say.

“Everything?”

“Is there more?”

“What he told you he want to tell you for long time,” she says, “you, his good angel.”

It has always amazed me how much my mother and father echo each other, in their speech, their actions, even in their businesses. I wonder how much more alike they could possibly be. But why shouldn’t they be alike? Like all parents, they were a society of two, sharing a series of private codes and associations, a past that even if I’d been born in the country of their birth, I still wouldn’t have known, couldn’t have known, thoroughly. I was a part of them. Some might say I belonged to them. But I wasn’t them.

“I don’t know, Ka.” My mother is whispering now, as though there’s a chance she might also be overheard by my father. “You and me, we save him. When I meet him, it made him stop hurt the people. This how I see it. He a seed thrown in rock. You, me, we make him take root.”

As my mother is speaking, this feeling comes over me that I sometimes have when I’m carving, this sensation that my hands don’t belong to me at all, that something else besides my brain and muscles is moving my fingers, something bigger and stronger than myself, an invisible puppetmaster over whom I have no control. I feel as though it’s this same puppetmaster that now forces me to lower the phone and hang up, in midconversation, on my mother.

As soon as I put the phone down, I tell myself that I could continue this particular conversation at will, in a few minutes, a few hours, a few days, even a few years. Whenever I’m ready.

My father walks back into the room, his thinning hair wet, his pajamas on. My mother does not call me back. Somehow she must know that she has betrayed me by not sharing my confusion and, on some level, my feeling that my life could have gone on fine without my knowing these types of things about my father.

When I get up the next morning, my father’s already dressed. He’s sitting on the edge of the bed, his head bowed, his face buried in his palms, his forehead shadowed by his fingers. If I were sculpting him at this moment, I would carve a praying mantis, crouching motionless, seeming to pray, while actually waiting to strike.

With his back to me now, my father says, “Will you call that actress and tell her we have it no more, the statue?”

“We were invited to lunch there,” I say. “I believe we should go and tell her in person.”

He raises his shoulders and shrugs.

“Up to you,” he says.

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
“Courageous. . . . Beautiful. . . . The Dew Breaker is brilliant book, undoubtedly the best one yet by an enormously talented writer.” —The Washington Post Book World

“Ms. Danticat’s most persuasive, organic performance yet. . . . Each tale in The Dew Breaker could stand on its own as a beautifully made story, but they come together like jigsaw-puzzle pieces to create a picture of this man's terrible history and his and his victims' afterlife.” —The New York Times

“Filled with quiet intensity and elegant, thought-provoking prose. . . . An elegiac and powerful novel with a fresh presentation of evil and the healing potential of forgiveness.” —People

“Luminous. . . . This is a tale of crime and punishment in the great tradition of Dostoevsky.” —The Baltimore Sun

“A devastating story of love, delusion, and history.” —O, The Oprah Magazine

Danticat’s gift is to combine both sympathy and clarity in a moral tangle that becomes as tight as a Haitian community.” —Time

“Breathtaking . . . With terrifying wit and flowered pungency, Edwidge Danticat has managed over the past 10 years to portray the torment of the Haitian people . . . In The Dew Breaker, Danticat has written a Haitian truth: prisoners all, even the jailers.” –The New York Times Book Review

“Danticat [is] surely one of contemporary fiction’s most sensitive conveyors of hope’s bittersweet persistence in the midst of poverty and violence.” –The Miami Herald

“Thrillingly topical . . . [The Dew Breaker] shines. . . . Danticat leads her readers into the underworld. It’s furnished like home.” –Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Stunning . . . Beautifully written fiction [that] seamlessly blend[s] the personal and political, [and] asks questions about shame and guilt, forgiveness and redemption, and the legacy of violence . . . haunting.” –USA Today

“Fascinating. . . . Danticat is a fine and serious fiction writer who has slowly grown as an artist with each book she has written.” –The Chicago Tribune

“In its varied characters, its descriptive power and its tightly linked images and themes, [The Dew Breaker] is a rewarding and affecting read, rich with insights not just about Haiti but also about the human condition.” –San Francisco Chronicle

“[The Dew Breaker] is, most profoundly, about love’s healing powers. From its marvelous descriptions of place to the gentle opening up of characters, this is a book that engages the imagination.” –Elle

“With her grace and her imperishable humanity . . . [Danticat] makes sadness beautiful.” –The New York Observer

“Danticat has an emotional imagination capable of evoking empathy for both predator and prey.” –Entertainment Weekly

“With characteristic lyricism and grace, Danticat probes the painful legacy of a time when sons turned against their fathers, children were orphaned, and communities were torn apart.” –The Philadelphia Inquirer

“Delicate and poetic . . . Danticat [is] more than a storyteller, she’s a writer. . . . Her voice is like an X-Acto knife–precise, sharp and perfect for carving out small details.” –The Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Filled with quiet intensity and elegant, thought-provoking prose . . . An elegiac and powerful novel with a fresh presentation of evil and the healing potential of forgiveness.” –People

“[Danticat] fuses the beauty and tragedy of her native land, a land her characters want to forget and remember all at once.” –Ebony

“In these stories Edwidge Danticat continues to speak eloquently for those who in losing their sorrowful homeland have lost their voices.” –The Boston Globe

“Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat presents simple truths…this, the novelist seems to be saying is how you understand; here is the primer for survival.” –The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Meet the Author

Edwidge Danticat was born in Haiti and moved to the United States when she was twelve. She is the author of several books, including Breath, Eyes, Memory, an Oprah Book Club selection; Krik? Krak!, a National Book Award finalist; and The Farming of the Bones, an American Book Award winner. She is also the editor of The Butterfly’s Way: Voices from the Haitian Dyaspora in the United States and The Beacon Best of 2000: Great Writing by Men and Women of All Colors and Cultures.

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The Dew Breaker 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 28 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is by far one of Danticat's best. A haunting tale about Haiti and a man's destructive past that follows him to New York. This novel helps put present day Haiti in perspective. Danticat is a wonderful Griot who can pull anyone into her narratives.
archetype67 More than 1 year ago
4.5 Danticat is a powerful writer who tackles intense topics. The Dew Breaker is no exception. This novel blends and blurs the idea of short stories and novels and succeeds wonderfully. The different POVs move through space and time but stay within the history and culture of Haitians and Haitian Americans and that is part of what unites the chapters. The violent history of Haiti's dictators and the impact they had on generations is explored, as are the ideas of repentance, reconciliation, and what freedom means. This is not an easy book to read, and the people portrayed are complex and flawed. Danticat paints these intensely colored miniature portraits that capture the essence and certain details of the lives she writes about, but we never get the full story. The one flaw was that, whether by nature of the format or because some portraits just gave that tiny bit more that let us empathize or glean a bit of understanding, some fell short of the majority... and those left me wanting that tiny bit more. The flaw is a small one, and the work is intense and horrifying and beautiful.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Alfrede Provilus More than 1 year ago
A well written insight into the life and times of ordinary Haitians, residing in Haiti and those exiled in the USA, during the brutal Duvalier dictatorship. A collection of interelated short stories with well developed interesting characters and poetic imagery that brings the near truth story to life. A great read. Once started I could not put in down until the end.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a book I feel you must read in one or two sittings. One you must finish right away. A story within stories. After reading this the title will haunt me...disgust me. This is a story that obviously won't appeal to everyone. You can see that in the reviews of this book. All I can say is if you liked BREATH, EYES, MEMORY as I did, I think you'd like this. You also learn a little from this book. First you'll learn what a DEW BREAKER is and a little about Haiti. Open your mind and take this trip.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Edwige Danticat offers us several short stories about the Dulavier era of Haiti. In her almost prosaic prose Danticat give us true horror stories and the monsters are human. Each story can stand alone but it is connected to the others through characters who are the victims of a brutal regime. Even the perpetrators are given sympathetic reality, which makes the reader wonder about the human condition. This is not a book I would read again, only because the subject is so painful and melancholy, but Danticat manages to find beauty through her writing about the most horrible events. ¿ Leslie Strang Akers
Guest More than 1 year ago
Much like Tim O'Brien's THE THINGS THEY CARRIED, this book lingers in that nebulous hinterland between short story and novel where few writers have the gumption or the ability to tread. Each chapter is a self-contained story, with divergent and seemingly random settings--Haiti in the dictatorial 1960s, Manhattan in the 1970s, Brooklyn and Queens in the 21st century. And yet slowly, irrevocably, the reader is drawn into the shared love, the shared remorse, the shared history, the shared hope, the shared rebellions--both personal and political--that circle round this unassuming man...this husband...this father...this friend...this torturer...this dew breaker. About three-quarters of the way into THE DEW BREAKER I couldn't see myself giving it anything more than 3-1/2 or 4 stars. This is a book that rewards patience, one whose ultimate purity is not realized until the very last sentence, when that 'pendulum between regret and forgiveness' swings one last time. Given what's going on even as we speak in the island nation of Haiti, THE DEW BREAKER's timeliness is nearly as haunting as Ms. Danticat's prose. Maybe this isn't a book for everyone...but it should be. Postscript: I bought the audio edition of THE DEW BREAKER after I read the print book. For those of you who find yourself tripping over some of the Creole dialect in print, try the audio. The narrator, Robin Miles, is an extraordinary talent.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Okay?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
"No. Just... No." Bramblefur stared at her unbelievingly. Dewdrop didn't want to believe it, but she new she was right. There would be a battle, and she and Bramblefur would die. "We have to avoid it. I will not die yet. I'm too young," he meowed. He began pacing back and forth across the cool pine needles. Dewdrop felt numb. She was a new warrior. How could she die so soon? She had worked so hard to get - and keep - her position as a respected warrior. She always fought on the winning side, and she never came close to dying. Never. A screech interrupted her thoughts. Cats were fighting! She listened for a second. The noise was coming from the ThunderClan border. "Come on!" She dashed through the forest, Bramblefur quick on her paws. They raced toward the sound of the battle, trees flashing by as the quickend their pace. Soon they arrived to see bloodstained grass and corpses, with the few remaining cats fighting on a hill. "Call reinforcements!" she called to Bramblefur. He nodded and streaked away. Dewdrop plunged down the hill, running as fast as she could toward the battle. She leapt onto an orange tabby - ThunderClan's deputy, Flamefrost - and began tearing at her sides with unsheathed claws. Flamefrost yowled and turned on her, swiping for her throat. Dewdrop ducked and sank her teeth into Flamefrost's back. Warm, salty liquid filled her mouth, and she swallowed against the blood. Her muzzle was stained red. The cats fought until a silvery moon rose in a sky of black velvet. Bramblefur had returned, bringing most of ShadowClan with him. They had sprung into the battle, unsheathed claws glinting as the sun's last bleeding rays disappeared under the horizen. Dewdrop was exhausted, but kept fighting. She had a belly wound that seeped blood and sapped her strength, but she kept going. She fixed her gaze on a huge black tomcat with glinting yellow eyes. She ran toward him as fast as she could go, leaving a glitteribg red trail of blood in her wake. She avoided stepping on corpses as she pounded towards her target. The tom turned just as she reached him, claws glinting with blood as he slashed his paw toward her throat. The last thing she saw before she closed her eyes and Bramblefur's eyes as his neck was ripped out, begging her to save him.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Although I learned a lot about Haitian history in this book, I really didn't like the format. It doesn't come together until the end, and all the while, I was very confused! Each chapter seems like a separate short story. Very little character development too.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I've enjoyed Danticat's earlier work and looked forward to reading this much-praised collection of interrelated stories. While her subject is worthy of the attention, the stories and style are not up to par.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The beggining was great and it was hard to put away that book. But close to the end I actually had to force myself to finish it. Too many characters were described at the same time which was hard to follow. This in not a book I would like to read again.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was drawn to this book by the interesting topic...however the author introduced charaters then never followed up on them...spoke about the characters very vaguely..sometimes I wasn't sure who I was reading about. AND there was hardly any mention as to what a Dew Breaker did in those days until the final chapter...give it a pass or wait until paperback.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
...welxome
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
RES SIX SRRY!!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
What happened Ms. Dantiat? It took me nearly 1 month to finish this book. Alot of the time was spent re-reading, because the story did not hold my interest at all,and I would forget what I had read. The book started out ok, but after the first thirty or so pages, I needed a map because I was lost for the next 200 pages.I've read her other books which were wonderful, but this one unfortunately was very disappointing.