Sunday, June 3, 2012

Review: A Wedding in Haiti by Julia Alvarez

Travelogue, memoir, love story, social and political commentary, history. Categorizing Julia Alvarez's new work is nearly impossible. It can't be contained in simply one category; there's too much to it to be merely one thing and not another. The one thing that it is for sure though, is a wonderful read.

Alvarez and her husband Bill own a coffee farm called Alta Gracia in her native Dominican Republic. They travel between the farm and their home in Vermont but given their distance from the farm for much of the year most of the day to day running of the farm is left to the workers who live there year round. These workers include many Haitians, some legally in the Dominican Republic and some there illegally. Piti is one of the Haitian workers at Alta Gracia and Alvarez fell for his charm the first time she and Bill met him, coming to view Piti as one of her family, her child. And so one night she made him a promise: that when he married, she would come to the wedding. When Piti calls 8 years later and announces his imminent wedding in Haiti, Alvarez tries but cannot say no to the promise she made so many years earlier and so she and husband Bill start off to the Dominican Republic to ultimately make their way to a remote part of Haiti so they can fulfill the promise to Piti and be there when he marries his Eseline.

As Alvarez tells of the roundabout way they have to travel to Haiti from the neighboring Dominican Republic, she recounts the tense and loaded history between these two countries. And in sharing her impressions of Piti and Eseline's relationship and their upcoming wedding, she also lays bare her own relationship with Bill and touches on her aging parents' grand love story as well as on her concerns for them, both of whom are ill and frail, suffering from dementia.

The trip to Haiti and the wedding itself are chronicled with a loving hand, Alvarez seeing the wonder in the people and the place despite the desperate poverty. Much as she fell for Piti, she falls for his several month old daughter Ludy and enjoys the traditions and hospitality of Piti and Eseline's extended families. The return trip to Alta Gracia is a rough and complicated one but that does nothing to erase the good feelings and interest in Haiti that the trip has stirred in Alvarez. So when the devastating earthquake decimates so much of Haiti less than a year later, it is completely natural that Alvarez feels compelled to return to Haiti to go check on Piti's family and see firsthand the destruction and loss heaped on this already desperately poor country.

Complex and personal, Alvarez writes movingly of general information as well as of the intimately familiar. She invites the reader into the relationships she has with her husband, with surrogate son Piti, with her parents, and with Eseline, even though the latter relationship is not easy. She does not shy away from hard truths, politically, when discussing the NGO's in Haiti after the earthquake, or when presenting her own foibles. She embraces and confronts the different realities of both Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Her snapshot-laden travelogue is intriguing and loaded with issues of social justice. But it is also brimming with an unexpected hope for the recovery of this remarkable country and the people who make their life in it.

Thanks to Algonquin Books for sending me a copy of the book for review.

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