Full disclosure: I know absolutely nothing about Caribbean history in general and Haitian history specifically, but wow. How outstanding was this book???
Anacaona: Golden Flower, Haiti, 1490, Edwige Danticat, 2005.
This is such an interesting novel in a period that is almost never ever ever a focus for any type of fiction in English: pre-Columbian-contact in the non-North American Western Hemisphere. Seriously. Name one other work of fiction for any age range that deals with any part of Central or South America pre-Columbian contact. Totally pre-contact, not “the white people show up at the end.” (Apocalypto doesn’t count.) Why so ignored? It’s so fascinating, and Danticat does such an excellent job of descriptions that it comes alive even for people like me who are (sadly, pathetically) pretty uninformed about Haitian history or indeed Caribbean history in general.
This is one of those interesting books in the series where the diary style is used with a culture that didn’t have a history of written language, so we need to handwave a little bit of that, but once you get past the initial dating system (season, phase of the moon, day, e.g. “The sunny season, first quarter moon, day 1”) it isn’t a distraction any more. Honestly, I think it works really well even discussing cultures that didn’t write, because by allowing the narrative to flow in this way is such a great way of delving into the narrator’s thoughts rather than a recounting of events. Anacaona is sixteen at the outset of the book and about eighteen by the end of it (if I’m counting correctly), and is married with a child by the end as well, so it’s definitely a bit more on the more mature end of things than, say, the Elizabeth I novel. But I would venture a guess to say it’s actually better, and I enjoyed it more afterwards.
Anacaona is part of the Taino people, and her uncle is the cacique, or supreme chief. Because the line is matrilineal, Anacaona’s brother Behechio or she will be the next chief, and consequently she has been effectively adopted by her uncle and raised in such a way that she will be able to take on his duties. So she is preparing for one of her ceremonies of adulthood, which is having her hair cut for the first time since infancy and includes a huge celebration with dancing and feasting and so on. One of the guests is a chief, Caonabo, from a neighbouring tribe, who is one of her many potential husbands, but that falls by the wayside when a wife is found for her brother.
Also interesting is that Anacaona will not be able to marry and rule in her own right. She has to choose one. If she marries, she will have to go to wherever her husband’s village is, but she will only ever be able to be the wife of a ruler. So she makes a vow to herself that she will only marry someone who is as powerful or more so than she would be otherwise, so she won’t be giving anything up. Which Caonabo, conveniently, is!
Behechio eventually gets five wives, but one of them is terribly unhappy and depressed and confides to Anacaona that she wants to return home to Maguana, where her uncle is a subchief under Caonabo, which will cause all kinds of problems. But the next day she’s found dead, having killed herself rather than stay there, which is not a great sign of marital harmony. And on top of that, not too long afterwards there’s an attack by a neighboring tribe, and Anacaona’s uncle’s solution is to just arm everyone and if they attack again to….do better fighting back, I imagine. But he is very ill, and periodically is so sick he cannot rise from his bed, and he is just getting very old.
On a related note, Caonabo comes for a visit and to ask for Anacaona’s hand in marriage. She accepts—partially because she really does love him (as much as she can from having met him like, twice) and partially because she realizes that her uncle is nearing the end of his life and he intends to make her brother his heir, not her, and partially because it will be a valuable alliance for both of them. (Ah, royalty.)
They have a lavish wedding, with all the ceremonies that go along with it (I have no idea how true-to-life these are, since I have zero idea of the scholarly research on the Taino people, but you just have to read it because it’s fascinating and so well-written. Following that, she goes to Maguana with Caonabo, which is a particularly wealthy and well-favoured area. They receive gifts of fruit and birds and hammocks when they travel around, and they have servants to care for them, and things are going very nicely until Anacaona realizes that while she has a good husband and a zillion servants, she has no friends like she did at home. So she has to sort of commandeer a friend from one of the women there, because they’re both interested in carving, but she still feels somewhat lonely there and is jealous of Caonabo’s friendship with his brother.
When Anacaona’s uncle dies, they travel back home, and Anacaona learns she’s pregnant! Circle of life, etc. etc., and then we skip forward a page or two to her birth. It’s a girl, they name her Higuamota after Caonabo’s mother, and they find out that her brother has a son at around the same time. But while things are going quite well for them, Caonabo’s brother sends a messenger that they have been beset by “men with pale skins” and this will not end well. Behechio sends word of the same thing, and both Caonabo and Anacaona intend to set out to investigate for themselves, but the white men reach them first.
Because they have no translator, they have to puzzle out what they’re looking for (gold, mostly, and other precious things) and Anacaona is disgusted with how rude they are. They start dismantling the chairs because they have gold in them, and one of them gets spooked when one of Caonabo’s men starts towards him so he FIRES INTO THE CROWD. Oh my god. Higuamota is nearly injured, being in the line of fire, and Caonabo is so angry that he kills one of the men. Two others are killed by other warriors, and they hurl the last one into the sea, where he drowns. This is some real shit.
Immediately following that, Anacaona and Caonabo leave to see Behechio along with Caonabo’s brother. They arrange a party of war, but when they get to Marien (where the white men have set up shop), they’re horrified to see that the white men have been killing at will and just leaving corpses strewn around as a warning. The people they’ve left alive have been forced to work digging gold, and their chief is so despondent that he can barely function. As a ruse, their warriors dig for gold all day, but after night falls all bets are off. They slaughter all but two of the white men, who are very ill and would have died soon anyway, and return home.
That’s the end, but it’s a sort of bitter, sad ending, because Anacaona says how she doesn’t want this story to be the only one she will be able to tell her daughter. But it is, of course—the only reason anyone knows anything about Anacaona today is because of her resistance to the Spanish invaders. And also she is hanged at twenty-nine for refusing to become the concubine of one of them. (The epilogue omits this, because this book is targeted at 12-year-olds.)
Rating: B+. This book took me a very long time to recap, and I am not sure why. It’s well-written, and the descriptions are incredibly beautiful and evocative. And I did learn about Haitian history, which like I said, I am shamefully ignorant of. I think it’s that the story itself unfolds at such a leisurely pace that it’s hard to recap and almost hard to explain. It’s an interesting story well-written, which is why I gave it such high marks, and I think the way I think it was fairly slow is my own problem. It’s definitely, definitely worth reading, but I don’t know where I would put it if I had to rank all the RD books in sequence.