Master of the Crossroads

Master of the Crossroads

by Madison Smartt Bell

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With the publication of All Souls' Rising, Madison Smartt Bell was immediately acclaimed as being "as remarkable a historical novelist as we have in this country" (Harold Bloom). The novel was a finalist for the National Book Award and was praised by writers as "a triumph of storytelling and inspired historical analysis" (Robert Stone) and by reviewers as "one…  See more details below


With the publication of All Souls' Rising, Madison Smartt Bell was immediately acclaimed as being "as remarkable a historical novelist as we have in this country" (Harold Bloom). The novel was a finalist for the National Book Award and was praised by writers as "a triumph of storytelling and inspired historical analysis" (Robert Stone) and by reviewers as "one of the year's most substantial literary accomplishments" (The New Yorker).

        Now, with Master of the Crossroads, Bell achieves an even greater accomplishment: he brings to life the rise to power of the great Haitian military general Toussaint Louverture and the story of the only successful slave revolution in history. Beginning in 1794, Toussaint led his troops to victory over English and Spanish invaders, over the French political establishment, and in a civil uprising for control of the infant island republic. He extended the ideological triumph of the French and American revolutions by offering universal liberty and human rights to all races.

        In chronicling Toussaint's victory and its aftermath, Bell gives us a kaleidoscopic portrait of this extraordinary figure as seen through the eyes of the men and women whose paths he crossed. English, French, Spanish, and African—the intersection of peoples who inhabited this war-torn island creates a rich social canvas against which the astonishing story of Toussaint Louverture—his beliefs, passions, and compulsions—unfolds over the course of nine tumultuous years.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Bell manages the bravura feat of bringing coherence and novelistic focus to the intrinsically complex history of Haiti's national liberator in this second installment in his brutal, sweeping trilogy. The first volume, All Souls' Rising, a National Book Award finalist, took the slave revolt in Haiti up to 1793, when the great leader Toussaint Louverture was consolidating power. Continuing his stunning historical fresco, Bell traces the intricate weave of Toussaint's campaigns with an intelligence and verve reminiscent of Shelby Foote's classic military histories, braiding his rich character studies into the larger scheme. Racial classification was a science in Haiti in the 18th century, and the subtlest variations in skin color determined the treatment each person received. Riau, Toussaint's godson, is an ex-slave. For him, the desire of the white planters to reintroduce slavery, and their fundamental racism, is evident, but Riau's hatred doesn't vitiate his humanity. Riau does trust Toussaint's secretary, a white doctor, Antoine H bert. A subplot running like a silver thread in the shadow of the war is H bert's quest for his mulatto mistress, Nanon, after she runs away from H bert's plantation with Choufleur, a sadistic mulatto planter and Nanon's former lover, who exploits the psychodynamics of slavery in a frightening erotic context. The faltering planter aristocracy is represented by Michel Arnaud, who returns to the island although his house and lands were torched in the first phase of the revolt. Arnaud's past is one of murderous cruelty. Now, he is slowly rehabilitating himself, thanks to Claudine, his wife, who suffers from possession by the darkest Vodou spirit, Baron Samedi. Bell continually integrates his history with the sacred Vodou landscape, and as events channel between crossroads, trances, dreams and bloodshed, this mesmerizing, disturbing saga of a half-forgotten war takes on the ominous outlines and biblical proportions of a prophetic vision. (Oct.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
The second installment in Bell's trilogy on the Haitian slave revolt of the 1790s (following All Souls' Rising) picks up the story in 1794, three years into the conflict. Toussaint Louverture, an itinerant herb doctor, has quickly risen through the ranks of the black militia to become supreme military commander of the island. Toussaint is a brilliant tactician who practices a form of horse-mounted blitzkrieg, racing his cavalry along narrow mountain trails in the dead of night to take the enemy by surprise. He is also an astute politician who shrewdly plays Haiti's numerous factions against one another to his own advantage. But the real key to Toussaint's power, according to Bell, is his mastery of the language of his oppressors. He generates an endless stream of carefully worded memos detailing his victories, often sitting up all night with a team of secretaries to compose them. It's as if the events themselves have no reality until they are put into words. As Toussaint perfects his white persona, Bell's core group of French colonials is increasingly drawn to the island's potent voodoo culture. What results is a superb historical novel that consistently surpasses the high standard set by All Souls' Rising. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/00.]--Edward B. St. John , Loyola Law Sch. Lib., Los Angeles Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Jay Parini
It's a brilliant performance, the work of an accomplished novelist of peculiar energy and courage...Bell's writing has never seemed more vivid, a flexible instrument that carries a huge plot forward without strain, calling little attention to itself, although its concreteness compels respect... the achievement here is considerable. One puts down Master of the Crossroads with a visceral knowledge of what it felt like to wage war in Haiti at the turn of the 19th century.
New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
A magnum opus in the making continues with this second in a trilogy (after All Souls' Rising, 1995) portraying the late—18th-century Haitian Revolution. This huge middle volume concentrates on the years 1794—1801, though its narrative is framed by scenes in which"liberator" Toussaint L'Ouverture, later (1802) imprisoned in France, writes his"memoir" and looks back on his years of struggle. Bell offers masterfully detailed accounts of Toussaint's shifting allegiances (once an ally of Spain, he has since declared himself a French"Republican" inspired by that country's Revolution) and campaigns against British occupying troops, native rebels, and French aristocratic slave-owners. The figure of the liberator is most clearly shown in the image of him held by those he commands, encounters, or engages in battle—including his conflicted subordinates Riau and Maillart, his captive Dr. Antoine Hébert (a major figure in All Souls' Rising), and involved"colonials" of various national and ethnic origins. Given the inevitable preponderance of somewhat redundant military operations, one admires—and appreciates—the ingenuity with which Bell varies the story's content. The pervasiveness of miscegenation, for example, is seen to threaten marriages and reputations, while ruining innocent lives and, paradoxically, offering the stubbornly decent Hébert an unexpected chance at happiness. Powerful drama emerges in the complexities that bedevil the Arnaud sugar plantation (perhaps cursed by its mistress's vicious murder of a pregnant slave); the wretched figure of half-breed Jean Michel Fortier, whobetrays his heritageby becoming a slave-catcher; and the ingenuous"Moustique" ("mosquito"), a"baby priest" transfigured by his susceptibility to both the heavy rhythms of indigenous native religions and the insistent lure of the flesh. The tale climaxes memorably, with Toussaint triumphant, having destroyed or driven away his people's tormentors—yet doomed to be overtaken by the well-known events that Bell dutifully provides for us in an appended Chronology of Historical Events and selected Original Letters and Documents. A most impressive fusion of history and fiction, and easily the finest work of this still-young writer's splendid career.

From the Publisher
“Like the best and rarest of historical fictions, it goes well beyond the limitations of its setting. . . . With its exploration of racial hatred and the possibilities of reconciliation, it reads like a distillation of our own troubling times.” –The Washington Post

“A brilliant performance, the work of an accomplished novelist of peculiar energy and courage. . . . One puts down Master of the Crossroads with a visceral knowledge of what it felt like to wage war in Haiti at the turn of the nineteenth-century.” –The New York Times Book Review

“Fiction in the grandest, most ambitious form. . . . Often the prose swaggers muscularly, reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy in the Border Trilogy; at other times it grows florid and surreal, in the vein of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.” –The Boston Globe
“Bell has taught historians a thing or two about what it means to have an intimate relationship with the past. Throwing caution to the wind, he has taken up a little-known but hugely important subject with passion and conviction.” –Los Angeles Times

"A stunning achievement: marvelously crafted, meticulous in its historical detail, magnificent in its sweep." —The Seattle Times

“[A] rich novel. . . . Its huge tapestry of scenes on battlefields and plantations, in ranches and churches, vibrantly reanimates Bell’s cast of real and fictional characters. . . . [Toussaint] is now one of the great characters in modern literature.” —San Francisco Chronicle

"An absorbing and . . . majestic read. . . . [Bell] could not have chosen a more resonant setting than Haiti, nor found a more telling figure in whom to summon contemporary hopes and fears." —Chicago Tribune

"This meticulously researched novel has the feel of a tableau by Delacroix: a generous swirl of individual and collective fervor." —The New Yorker

"A fascinating tale. . . . Bell rides his near-perfect prose style through the terrain of the human psyche with astonishing ease." —The Philadelphia Inquirer

“Bell has learned well the lessons of [Tolstoy]. . . . [The] human drama of families, lovers and individual quests for self-knowledge envelops the reader in a brilliant blend of history and fiction.” —The Portland Oregonian

"Atmospheric, well-researched, and well-written. . . . The unfolding of Haitian history is a fascinating tale, and Bell tells it with great skill." —The Pittsburgh Post Gazette

“Provides a history lesson that tells us much about our present and, perhaps, constitutes a warning for our future.” —The Miami Herald

“Read this novel to get a feel of life and death in the midst of one of the New World’s major political and military uprisings . . . in this trilogy we find the talented Madison Smartt Bell at the crossroads of his career.” —The Dallas Morning News

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Product Details

Penguin Group (USA)
Publication date:
Haitian Revolution Series, #2
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.44(w) x 7.68(h) x 1.43(d)

Read an Excerpt

Fort de Joux, France

August 1802

Citizen Baille, commandant of the Fort de Joux, crossed the courtyard of the mountain fortress, climbed a set of twelve steps, and knocked on the outer door of the guardhouse. When there was no reply, he hitched up the basket he carried over his left arm and rapped again more smartly with his right fist. A sentry opened to him, stood aside, and held his salute. Baille acknowledged him, then turned and locked the door with his own hand.

"Les clefs," said Baille, and the sentry presented him with a large iron keyring.

"In the future," Baille announced, "I will keep these keys in my own possession. Whoever has need of them must come to me. But there will be no need."

Citizen Baille unlocked the inner door and pulled, heaving a part of his considerable weight against the pull-ring to set the heavy door turning on its hinges. He stooped and picked up a sack of clothing from the floor, and carrying both sack and basket, passed through the doorway and turned and locked it behind him.

The vaulted corridor was dimly lit through narrow loopholes that penetrated the twelve-foot stone walls. Baille walked the length of it, aware of the echo of his footfalls. At the far end he set down the basket and the sack and unlocked another door, passed through, and relocked it after him.

Two steps down brought him to the floor of the second vaulted corridor, which was six inches deep in the water that came imperceptibly, ceasely seeping from the raw face of the wall to the left--the living stone of the mountain. Baille muttered under his breath as he traversed the vault; his trouserswere bloused into his boots, which had been freshly waxed but still leaked around the seams of the uppers. Opening the next door was an awkward affair, for Baille must balance the sack and basket as he worked the key; there was no place on the flooded floor to lay them down.

Ordinarily he might have brought a soldier or a junior officer to bear those burdens for him, but the situation was not ordinary, and Baille was afraid--no (he stopped himself), he was not afraid, but . . . He could not rid his mind of the two officers of the Vendée who had lately escaped from this place. It was an embarrassment, a scandal, a disgrace, and Baille might well have lost his command, he thought, except that to be relieved of this miserable, frozen, isolated post might almost have been taken as a reward rather than a punishment. He still had little notion how the escape had been possible. There was none among his officers or men whom he distrusted, and yet none could give a satisfactory explanation of what had taken place. The prisoners could not have slipped through the keyholes or melted into the massive stone walls, and the heavy mesh which covered the cell windows (beyond their bars) was not wide enough to pass a grown man's finger.

His current prisoner was vastly more important than those officers could ever dream to be--although he was a Negro, and a slave. From halfway around the world Captain-General Leclerc had written to his brother-in-law, the First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte himself, that this man had so inflamed the rebel slaves of Saint Domingue that the merest hint of his return there would overthrow all the progress Leclerc and his army had made toward the suppression of the revolt and the restoration of slavery. Perhaps only the whisper of the name of Baille's prisoner on the lips of the blacks of Saint Domingue would be sufficient cause for that Jewel of the Antilles, so recently France's richest possession overseas, to be purged yet another time with fire and blood. So wrote the Captain-General to his brother-in-law, and it seemed that the First Consul himself took the liveliest interest in the situation, reinforcing with his direct order Leclerc's nervous request that the prisoner be kept in the straitest possible security, and as far away as possible from any seaport that might provide a route for his return.

The Fort de Joux, perched high in the Alps near the Swiss border, met this second condition most exactly. One could hardly go farther from the sea while still remaining within French borders. As for security, well, the walls were thick and the doors heavy, the windows almost hermetically sealed. In the case of the recent escape there had most certainly been betrayal. The officers had somehow obtained the files they used to cut their bars, and probably had enjoyed other aid from some unknown person in the fort. For this reason Baille had chosen to wait upon his new prisoner himself and alone, at least for the present, despite the inconvenience it occasioned.

While pursuing this uneasy rumination, he had crossed the third corridor, which was set at a higher level than the one before and therefore was less damp. He opened and relocked the final door and turned to face the openings of two cells. Clearing his throat, he walked to the second door and called out to announce himself. After a moment a voice returned the call, but it was low and indistinct through the iron-bound door.

Baille turned the key in the lock and went in. The cell, vaulted like the passages leading to it, was illuminated only by coals of the small fire. Baille's heart quivered like a jelly, for it seemed there was no one in the room--he saw with his frantically darting eyes the low bed, stool, the table . . . but no human being. He dropped the sack and clapped a hand over his mouth. But now the man was standing before him after all, not five paces distant, as if he had been dropped from the ceiling--or had spun himself down, like a spider on its silk. Indeed the barrel vault overhead was filled with dismal shadows, so that Baille could not make out the height of its curve. The vault dwarfed the prisoner, a small Negro unremarkable at first glance, except that he was slightly bandy-legged. Baille swallowed; his tongue was thick.

"Let us light the candle," he said. When there was no response he went to the table and did so himself, then turned to inspect the prisoner in the improved light.

This was Toussaint Louverture, who had thought to make the island colony of Saint Domingue independent of France. He had written and proclaimed a constitution; he had, so rumor ran, written to the First Consul with this arrogant address: "To the first of the whites from the first of the blacks." But now, if this arrogance had not been exactly punished, it had certainly been checked by many rings of stone.

Baille faced his guest with a smile, feeling his lips curve on his face like clay. "I have brought your rations," he said.

Toussaint did not even glance at the basket, which Baille had set down on the table when he struck the light. He looked at the commandant with a cool intensity which Baille found rather unnerving, though he did his best to hold . . . after all, it was not quite a stare. Toussaint's head was disproportionately large for his body, with a long lower jaw and irregular brown teeth. His eyes, however, were clear and intelligent. He wore a madras cloth bound around his head and the uniform of a French general, which was, however, limp and soiled. Apparently he had had no change of his outer garments since he had first been made prisoner and deported from Saint Domingue.

"I have brought you fresh clothing," Baille said, and indicated the sack he had dropped on the floor in his first surprise. Toussaint did not shift his gaze to acknowledge it. Presently Baille picked up the sack himself and stooped to lay out the contents on the low bed.

"This uniform is not correct," Toussaint said.

Baille swallowed. "You must accept it." Somehow he could not manage to phrase the sentence with greater force.

Toussaint looked briefly at the coals in the fire.

"Your uniform is soiled and worn, and too light for the weather," Baille said. "It is already cold here, and soon it will be winter, sir--" This sir escaped him involuntarily. He stopped and looked at the woolen clothes he had unfolded on the bed. "Acceptez-les, je vous en prie."

Toussaint at last inclined his head. Baille sighed. "I must also ask that you surrender any money you may have, or any . . ." He let the sentence trail. He waited, but nothing else happened at all. "Do you understand me?" This time Baille suppressed the sir. "Yes, of course," Toussaint said, and he turned his head and shoulder toward the door. Baille had already begun walking in that direction before he recognized that he had been dismissed, that he should not permit himself to be so dismissed, that it was his clear duty to remain and watch the prisoner disrobe and see with his own eyes that he held nothing back. However, he soon found himself against the outside of the door, unreeling in his mind long strings of curses, although he did not know for certain if it were the prisoner or the assigned procedures he meant to curse.

After a few minutes he called out. The same indistinct mutter returned through the door, and Baille opened it and went back in. Toussaint stood in the fresh clothes that had been given him; his feet, incongruously, were bare. Or rather Baille felt that he himself would have looked absurd and foolish standing barefoot in such a situation, but it detracted in no way from the dignity of the prisoner. Toussaint motioned toward the table with a slight movement of his left hand.

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Meet the Author

Madison Smartt Bell is the author of fourteen works of fiction, including The Stone That the Builder Refused; All Souls’ Rising; Save Me, Joe Louis; Dr. Sleep; Soldier's Joy; and Ten Indians. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland with his family and teaches at Goucher College.

Brief Biography

Baltimore, Maryland
Date of Birth:
August 1, 1957
Place of Birth:
Nashville, Tennessee
A.B. in English, Princeton University, 1979; M.A. in English and creative writing, Hollins College, 1981

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