The Farming of Bones

The Farming of Bones

infobox Book |
name = The Farming of Bones
title_orig =
translator =

image_caption = First edition cover
author = Edwidge Danticat
illustrator =
cover_artist =
country = US
language = English
series =
genre = Novel
publisher = Soho Press
release_date = September 1998
english_release_date =
media_type = Print
pages = 312 pages (hardback)
isbn = ISBN 1569471266
preceded_by =
followed_by =

"Farming of Bones" is a work of historical fiction by Edwidge Danticat.

Plot introduction

Edwidge Danticat starts off "The Farming of Bones" with narrator Amabelle Desir speaking of her lover Sebastian Onius. These two Haitians are later separated due to the beginning of the 1937 massacre. Amabelle starts off a long journey in pursuit of news of her love and along the way encounters various difficult obstacles.

Explanation of the novel's title

The title "The Farming of Bones" is alluded to in Chapter 10 when Amabelle refers to the cane life as “travay te pou zo,” or the farming of bones. Working in the cane fields prove to be dangerous and even life threatening as it scars and mutilates many of the workers. However, the farming of bones also refers to digging up the past. Inundated with references to the past, the story contains many instances where characters are unable to move on. For example, Amabelle constantly dwells upon not only memories of her dead parents, but also memories with Sebastien. In addition, Yves feels guilty for living when Joel saves Yves’s life by pushing him out of the way of Senor Pico’s automobile. Despite being able to survive the massacre and his success in farming, Yves cannot move on, wondering why he was not the one to die not only in the accident, but also during the killings. Furthermore, Don Ignacio fails to forget his involvement in the military regardless of his exile to another country. Decades later, he cannot feel happy for the birth of his granddaughter, for he believes that his losses may be consequences of his past. Many people throughout the story are like this and as a result are like living dead, walking the earth to seek answers to unanswered questions.


Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Edwidge Danticat visited the Massacre River in 1995 and was surprised by the domestic routines taking place. The people at the river were unaware of the brutal killings that had taken place there years ago. Realizing that the horrific occurrences of the 1937 massacre had been forgotten, Danticat was determined to memorialize the victims and their suffering, by telling their stories and spreading knowledge. In 1937, President Rafael Trujillo commanded his army to kill all Haitians. The majority were killed with machetes as ordered by Trujillo. Thousands were killed in the process of attempting to return to Haiti. [ 1] Trujillo’s supposed inspiration for the massacre started when the Dominicans complained of Haitian thefts. He reassured his people that he would stop this treachery. His real motive however was to segregate the two peoples. He wanted to separate the Dominicans from the Haitians to establish more control and provide a clear division between the two countries. With tens of thousands of Haitians dead after five days of killing the result was only that Trujillo power was weakened. Ultimately, Trujillo was assassinated in 1961.


"The Farming of Bones" is told in first person narrative through the character of Amabelle Desir. Amabelle narrates in past tense with memories and dreams interlaced within it. The story is not told from the beginning of Amabelle’s life but instead, it encapsulates the period of the life leading to the massacre and her life after. The memories and dreams intermingled within in the story gives insight into her character and add to story development. For instance, many of the chapters that consist of a single memory deal with her parents. These memories delve into Amabelle’s haunting past and reveal information about her development as a character. Further comprehension of Amabelle’s life and development as a character is accomplished by the author’s use of second-person narration in Chapter 19, the single time that the character breaks the third wall that separates her from the narrator. For example, Amabelle says:

“At first you are afraid to step behind the waterfall as the water in all its strength pounds down on your shoulders. Still you tiptoe into the cave…”

This is a reflection of Amabelle’s life throughout the story as although she is afraid of what may come, she still searches for Sebastian even with the risk of death closely by her side.

Edwidge Danticat attributes her love for storytelling to those of Haitian women who congregate to tell their stories, known as “kitchen poets.” [ 2] The style of "The Farming of Bones" is reminiscent of “kitchen poets.”

“And in Sylvie’s eyes was a longing I knew very well, from the memory of it as it was once carved into my younger face: I will bear anything, carry any load, suffer any shame, walk with eyes to the ground, if only for the very small chance that one day our fates might come to being somewhat closer and I would be granted for all my years of travail and duty an honestly gained life that in some extremely modest way would begin to resemble. (Ch. 41 Pg. 306) Danticat uses Amabelle to tell the story as if she is an older woman, trying to teach the newer generation about the past in hopes that they can learn from it. In this case, Amabelle intimates her failures of her past and hopes that the younger generation, Sylvie, will be able to learn what Amabelle had.

Major Formal Strategies

In terms of literary devices, Danticat relies very heavily on symbolism to apply to a more general truth. For example, water, in different forms, symbolized different things throughout the book, changing its meaning just as fluidly as water changes its shape. For example, at first the Massacre River symbolized the Amabelle’s loss, most prominently, the loss of her parents. However, while escaping to Haiti, the Massacre River represented the means to a new life, an obstacle to overcome, and what she had to lose to get there. At the end of the story, the Massacre River meant her acceptance of her past, “looking for the dawn (Ch. 41, p.310).” Lastly, the waterfall represented not only the importance of overcoming fear, but also the need to look forward. In Chapter 19, Amabelle is afraid to cross the waterfall, however, once she does, she finds that it “makes you want to celebrate yourself (100), but in Chapter 41, the waterfall is where she thinks she will find Sebastien. However, after returning to the river, she does not find and him and realizes that “he didn’t come out and show himself. He stayed inside the waterfall (306).

Danticat frequently uses shadows to represent a link to the past that cannot be forgotten or lost, much like a person’s shadow that never leaves. Amabelle’s shadows of her past were the death of her parents and her loss of Sebastien. This is further developed when Danticat reveals that Amabelle found solace in playing with shadows as a child, demonstrating her comfort in living in her past.

Another marked symbol in "The Farming of Bones" is parsley. It is the pronunciation of parsley that determines who lives and who dies in the Dominican Republic. In one instance, parsley is referred to being used to “cleanse” insides as well as outsides and “perhaps the Generalissimo in some larger order was trying to do the same for his country (Ch.29 p. 203).” In this case, the Generalissimo uses parsley as a determinate of life or death. Furthermore, in another instance, parsley is an ability to conform to others, for the Haitians it is that “their own words reveal who belongs on what side (Ch.41, p.304),” the result of which is death. This marked difference that the Haitians are unable to conceal, is like the mole of Felice. The noticeable birthmark of Felice is something that she cannot escape and having it, results in prejudices against her, most specifically Kongo’s inability to accept her worth as a person.

Not only does Danticat utilize dreams as a vehicle of character development, but she also uses dreams as a vehicle for the characters to escape reality and nightmares as a means to haunt them of their past. While Amabelle frequently dreams of her parents drowning in the river, Sebastien dreams of his father’s death in the hurricane. Yves is tortured with nightmares of his father, with his eyes wide open and glazed over, he says, “Papa, don’t die on that plate of food. Please let me take it away (Ch.22 p.129).” Although Amabelle, Sebastien, and Yves can try to move on from the past during their daily lives, they cannot escape the truth of their nightmares. However, the characters in "The Farming of Bones" continue to try to find solace in the comfort of their dreams. Amabelle says, “I looked to my dreams for softness, for a gentler embrace, for relief from the fear of mudslides and blood bubbling out of the riverbed… (Ch. 41, p.310).” As a refuge from the rigors of real life, dreams serve as “amulets to protect us from evil spells (Ch.37 p.265) ” or to protect the Haitians from the harshness of reality. In fact, Man Denise seeks refuge from her life and the pain of losing her children, saying “I’m going to dream up my children (Ch.33 p.243).” Although the characters depend on dreams to protect and mollify them, providing an escape from reality, dreams are not always guaranteed and nightmares may actually come to haunt them in their sleep.

Lastly, sugarcane is another important symbol found in the book. One of Amabelle’s reoccurring dreams is one of the sugar woman. The chains bind the sugar woman and she wears a silver muzzle. This muzzle was given to the sugar woman so that she would not eat the sugarcane. However, despite her confinements, she is dancing. Much like the workers, they come to the Dominican Republic to find work and a better life and stay due to the work that they find in the mills that they cannot find in Haiti. Regardless of their hard work, the workers cannot taste the sweetness of the sugarcane; instead, they are bounded by it. In fact, they cannot escape it. Danticat even describes Sebastien with his sweat as thick as sugarcane juice and many of his defining scars a result of working in the cane fields.

Aside from Danticat’s use of symbolism, foreshadowing is also heavily prevalent. For example, the doctors states that “many of us start out as twins in the belly and do away with each other (Ch.4, p.19).” This foreshadows not only the death of Rafael, but also the fate of the Haitians. The Haitians and the Dominican both hail from the same island and struggle to survive among the same resources. [ 1] However, it is the Dominicans who try to do away with the Haitians in the form of the killings. In addition, the twins serve as further foreshadowing in terms of the Rosalinda’s caul and Rafael’s death. The caul served as an omen of bad luck to come and Rafael’s unexpected death foreshadowed many more deaths, such as the sudden death of Kongo’s son and the unprecedented number of deaths of Haitians.

Plot summary

Set in the Dominican Republic in the 1930s, "The Farming of Bones" tells the story of a young Haitian girl named Amabelle Desir. Orphaned by the age of 8, Amabelle works for Don Ignacio and his daughter. Although Don Ignacio and his daughter are important figures in Amabelle’s life, it is evident that Amabelle’s life revolves around her lover, Sebastien Onius. After the accidental death of one of Sebastien’s fellow cane workers, the Haitian’s distrust of the Dominican government grows, but this distrust is warranted. With news of the Generalissimo’s intentions to “cleanse the country,” Haitian workers attempt to return to their home country.

When complications separate Amabelle and Sebastien during their attempt to flee, Amabelle is desperate to find what has become of Sebastien. Accompanied by Sebastien’s friend, Yves, Amabelle makes her journey with the help of fellow survivors she encounters along the way. While escaping, the group must divide for their own safety. Upon reaching the town of Dajabon, Amabelle is disappointed to find that Sebastien is not there. While in Dajabon, Dominicans beat and torture Amabelle, Yves, and a fellow Haitian, Tibon, after recognizing their inability to pronounce “perejil” correctly, one of the most prevalent ways that the Dominicans determine the segregation of Haitians. On the verge of death, two remaining members of their group rescue Amabelle and Yves and bring them to the river that they must cross. Unfortunately only Amabelle and Yves survive the dangerous crossing, where they are met at the other side by nuns who nurse them back to health. During the recovery process, Amabelle learns of the other survivors’ story of “kout kouto,” what the Haitians call the massacre.

Once Amabelle and Yves have healed, Yves offers to take Amabelle to his home. Upon arrival of the city, Amabelle and Yves settle in his home and try to rebuild their lives. While Yves finds solace in working in his father’s fields and becomes a successful landowner, Amabelle continues her search for Sebastien. After finding Sebastien’s mother and learning of the truth about Sebastien’s fate, Amabelle returns to her life with Yves. Although Yves and Amabelle try to find comfort in one another, they are unable to fulfill each other’s needs. Twenty years after her escape from Alegria, Amabelle decides to search for a connection to Sebastien by reliving old memories in places of the past. Despite reuniting with Senora Valencia, Amabelle is dissatisfied with the results of her search. Unable to find further reason to live, Amabelle succumbs to the Massacre River, looking for a new beginning.


Set in 1937, the story starts out in Alegria which consists of many sugarcane mills that requires workers. However, with the government’s intentions to “cleanse the country,” the story soon travels within the Dominican Republic as far as the Massacre River that borders the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Once Amabelle and Yves reach Haiti, the setting is mostly concentrated in the town that Yves is from, the Cap. Amabelle returns to Haiti briefly to Alegria and the story ends with her in the Massacre River.

Major themes

Importance of Remembering the Past

One of Danticat’s major themes is the purpose of the book itself, which is to emphasize the importance of remembering the past. Throughout the book the Haitian workers make a point of retelling and remembering all that happened to them. This is because there is a major fear of forgetting the names and the faces of their loved ones. Through oral tradition the story is passed on and never forgotten, as demonstrated by many survivors” visits to Sebastian’s mother.

“‘They are always strangers, the people who come,’ she said.” “‘They do not know me. Before they died, either alone or together, my son and daughter told them to come here and tell me about their fates (Ch. 33 pg. 242).’”

This is evident in many of the character’s lives, as for example while at the tent clinic they all take turns telling their stories. There is a fierce desperation to tell their stories so that it may be passed on and remembered.

“Another group of voices argued for the right to speak next, as if their owners had been biting their tongues while this last man was speaking (Ch. 30 pg. 209).”

They argue and they bite their tongues in desperation, for “It is only the nameless and the faceless who vanish like smoke into the early morning air (Ch. 40 pg. 282)

Power and Significance of Love

Another resounding theme within "The Farming of Bones" is the power and significance of love. As demonstrated by both parents and lovers alike, love is one of the few things that gives Haitian workers something to live for. An excellent example of this is the relationship between Odette and Wilner. Although Wilner was shot and Odette lived for a very short moment thereafter, the love between them was an everlasting bond, as even when one lived, it is said that

“Odette died when Wilner died…They killed her when they killed him (Ch 34 pg 249).”

In another case, Sebastian’s mother, Man Denise, retells the story of Saint Sebastian and his life from love. Saint Sebastian, whom her son was named after, was shot with arrows and left to die. However, a widow found him and nursed him back to health. Upon his recovery “Saint Sebastian went back to the soldiers to show them the miracle of love that was his life (Ch. 33 Pg. 240).” This is parallel to the relationship between Sebastian and Amabelle in which both were wounded by their past but through love found comfort in each other and gave them reason to live. The extent of the power of their love is demonstrated greatly by Amabelle’s pursuit of news of Sebastian and what had happened to him. Despite the ultimate knowledge of Sebastian’s death, Amabelle could neither live nor move on because Sebastian had been the source of her life. Burdened with this truth, she like Man Denise continues living and can only dream of Sebastian and the memories they created together.

In terms of a more filial love, Man Denise gave her children coffee bean bracelets, a symbol of her love for them and which bound them together. However, when her children, Sebastian and Mimi died, it was said that they died with her bracelets on their wrists. Although they died, the bracelets on their wrists continued to serve as a testament to love between them as it was through the bracelets that they were identified to their mother by survivors. Once Man Denise realized that she no longer had reason to live, she was never the same person again, always dreaming of and never forgetting her children as she says “Leave me now…I’m going to dream up my children (Ch. 33 Pg. 243).”

Temporality of Life

Also, Danticat stresses the temporality life. In contrast to the Haitians’ strength exhibited when they had to endure many trials and tribulations in their pursuit of freedom, Danticat constantly reminds the reader of value of life. This juxtaposition emphasizes the themes of not only the perseverance of the human spirit, but also the fragility of life itself. Despite the strength of the human spirit, Danticat questions the true meaning of survival, whether it means merely to remain living or to live life to its fullest. Often, survivors carry the burden of guilt, asking themselves why they survived while others did not. For example, “Papi dragged a cross made of freshly sawed cedar across the red clay floor in the pantry. The cross had Senor Joel Raymond Lorier, carved in small uneven letters (Ch.26 p.152).” The cross was not only a physical burden but an emotional one. Laden with guilt, Papi drags the cross with him for the rest of his life. He, like many others, questions whether he deserves to live or why he was chosen to live. However, despite this persistent weight that holds them down, it is evident that the survivors demonstrate great strength. One of the survivors even states, “I’m one of those trees whose roots reach the bottom of the earth. They can cut down my branches, but they will never uproot the tree. The roots are too strong, and there are too many (Ch. 30 p.212).” Regardless of the experiences that could have broken their spirit, the survivors feel that they must keep living. In fact, Yves says to Amabelle, “…the more I see people die, the more I want to guard my own life (Ch.34 p.239).” However, despite the strength of the human spirit, the human body is fragile. “It is no different, the flesh, than fruit or anything that rots. It’s not magic, not holy. It can shrink, burn, and like amber it can melt in fire. It is nothing. We are nothing (Ch.30 p.213).” Through this, Danticat reinforces the need to appreciate life and its impermanence. Given Amabelle’s guilt for surviving and her uncertainty for a reason to live, Amabelle still understands the value of life and the effects of losing it; she says, “…the slaughter showed me that life can be a strange gift” and “breath, life glass is always in danger (Ch. 40 p.283).” And although she may have lost hope, Amabelle still admits that she will continue living, finding a reason to live when she says, “it takes patience, you used to say, to raise a setting sun (Ch.40, p.283).” The setting sun representing her optimism, Amabelle still wants to be hopeful, even though she knows it will take time.

Prejudice and Discrimination

Lastly, Danticat condemns prejudice and discrimination, revealing the extent of their cruelty and their damaging effects on their victims. For instance, Danticat paints a negative picture of Senor Pico, admonishing his discrimination against others. Contrasting his wife’s sympathy for the workers when Senor Valencia invites the cane workers over for coffee, Senor Pico “took the set out to the yard and, launching them against the cement walls of the house latrines, he shattered the cups and saucers, one by one (Ch.20, p.116).” Not only was the act unnecessarily violent, but also it represents the vulgarity of such discrimination, taking the time to ensure the destruction of each item. This intentional act of harm is reminiscent of the killings, when one woman describes the death of her family, saying “first my son, then my father, then my sister (Ch.29, p.209) ” by the same man, killing them with a machete in his hands because they were Haitians, despite knowing the woman her whole life. Thus, it is essential to understand the harm and the meaninglessness of discrimination and prejudice.

Awards and nominations

"The Farming of Bones" won a number of awards which include the Super Flaiano Prize and the 1999 American Book Award.

Literary significance and reception

Published in 1998, "The Farming of Bones" received numerous critiques raving about Danticat's ability to make history come to life within the readers' minds.

"Every chapter cuts deep, and you feel it…. ‘The Farming of Bones’ always remains focused, with precise, disciplined language, and in doing so, it uncovers moments of raw humanness. This is a book that, confronted with corpses, has the cold-eyed courage to find a smile." - "Time" magazine [ 3]

"Sensuously atmospheric...perfectly paced...lushly poetic and erotic...and starkly realistic." - Publishers Weekly [ 4]

Publication history

*1998, United States of America, Soho Press ISBN 1569471266, 1998, hardback

ources, references, external links, quotations

Danticat, Edwidge. The Farming of Bones. New York: Penguin Books, 1998. 1-310.

Parsley Massacre

Rafael Trujillo

Saint Sebastian



Dominican Republic

1 [ The Progressive and interview with Edwidge Danticat.]

2 [ Penguin reading guide and interview with Edwidge Danticat.]

3 [ New York State Writers Institute]

4 [ Powell's Institute]

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