Edwidge Danticat


"The Dew Breaker"

(reviewed by Poornima Apte JUL 3, 2004)

Edwidge Danticat has always written beautifully about Haiti’s fractured past, but The Dew Breaker is her most mature and nuanced work to date. Central to the novel is the title character, living out his life in relative anonymity as a barber in New York City. The only visible connection to his past is a deep scar on his cheek. Then comes a confession after he sees his likeness turned into a statue by his daughter. He throws away the statue, a visible documentation of the person that he is. “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.”

As a dew breaker (men who would visit at the crack of dawn) in Duvalier’s regime he was one of the Tonton Macoutes, the cruel militiamen who stopped short at nothing to execute the dictator’s tyrannical policies. “I had always thought that my father’s only ordeal was that he’d left his country and moved to a place where everything from the climate to the language was so unlike his own, a place where he never quite seemed to fit in, never appeared to belong,” says the daughter after the confession, “The only thing I can grasp now…is why the unfamiliar might have been so comforting, rather than distressing, to my father. And why he has never wanted the person he was, is, permanently documented in any way.”

Danticat paints the horrific details about the dew breaker’s past in fragments of stories told through different perspectives—through the eyes of those he has tortured including a once young boy who, watched with his own eyes, as his parents were burned to death.

In one story a young reporter, Aline, interviews a seamstress called Beatrice in New York City who cannot forget the dew breaker’s face—he keeps following me, she says. “Growing up poor but sheltered in Somerville, Massachusetts, Aline had never imagined that people like Beatrice existed,” Danticat writes, “men and women whose tremendous agonies filled every blank space in their lives.”

Even though it probably was not intentional, The Dew Breaker also is relevant as a commentary on the recent political unrest in Haiti. Chilling images of prison torture in the novel make the reader cringe even as one remembers the sad real-life prisoner abuse headlines. A country that smells so wonderful full of bougainvillea and frangipani is constantly being torn asunder by war leading the elite to flee the country and watch simmering tensions from the sidelines. “Isn’t it amazing?” one of the characters in the novel says, “Jackie Kennedy can go to Haiti anytime she wants, but we can’t.”

The beauty of Danticat’s writing lies in the fact that even the dew breaker is painted as a character capable of redemption—he was all evil once but he is desperate to put his past behind him even if “there was no way to escape this dread anymore, this pendulum between regret and forgiveness.” He anoints his wife and his child as his “Kas” his good angels.

“He had escaped from his life. He could no longer return to it, no longer wanted to,” Edwidge Danticat writes of the dew breaker. However, her beautiful novel proves that you can shut the door on your past but memories leak out, returning to haunt you time and time again. You can escape and distance can separate you physically but the most innocuous of situations can fire up the conflagration yet again. Memory is often the most cruel of punishments.

Editor's Note: Dew Breaker is a runner-up for the 2005 PEN/Faulkner Award.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 56 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Dew Breaker at RandomHouse

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"Breath, Eyes, Memory"

(Comments by Judi Clark JUN 17, 1998)

Twelve year old Sophie Caco lives in Haiti with her aunt Atie who has raised her from birth. Her mother lives in New York City and has been sending money The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticathome but now has sent a ticket for Sophie to go live with her. Through this story we learn about the women of Haiti and we visit this island with its sugar fields and road side stands.

Danticat draws on her own experience to write this story. The prose is gentle, the story is not. This book deserves to be read at least twice.

  • Amazon readers' rating: from 212 reviews

Read an excerpt from Breath, Eyes, Memory



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About the Author:

Edwidge DanticatEdwidge Danticat was born in Haiti in 1969. Her father immigrated to the United States just two years later looking for work.  Her mother followed him in 1973.  Danticat remained in Haiti eight more years, raised by her Aunt. She left Haiti at the age of 12 to be reunited with her parents in Brooklyn, New York.  Two short years later, Danticat published her writing in English, including a newspaper article about her immigration to the U.S. that inspired her first novel, Breath, Eyes Memory

She earned a degree in French literature from Barnard College, where she won the 1995 Woman of Achievement Award and later an MFA from Brown University. More recently she recieved a grant from the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Foundation. The New York Times Magazine selected Danticat as one of the 30 "under 30" to watch.  She was selected as one of the "20 best young American novelists" by Granta in 1996. 

Danticat teaches creative writing at New York University, in New York City where she still lives, but returns often to Haiti to visit relatatives.

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