Because We Are: A Novel of Haiti by Ted Oswald – Review

Certainly we all think of Haiti in particular terms, here in the U.S. We don’t have the “history” with the island nation that France does, for instance. I’m sure many of us think immediately of dictatorships (Baby Doc Duvalier), unrest, UN interventions, and finally, The Earthquake. And because we live in a first world nation, where we readily ignore the starving and impoverished already living side by side with us, it’s all too easy to forget the woes of third world nations. Because we want to.

That said, we can look to Haiti as a land with a particular ethos, even if that sensibility gets clouded from time to time. “Libète, Egalité, Fraternité” Moreover, it is the phrase, “because we are,” that is at the heart of this novel. Oswald does his level best to remind us, far more gently than might be warranted, that it is we who have muddied the waters. Rather than read this deep and engaging work with a sense of nagging guilt, however, one ought to read with a feeling of awe. I know that this is a complete work of fiction – but it might as well be documentary. There are probably far too many stories bearing resemblance to those of the characters Libète, Jak, Davidson, Aunt Estelle, Lolo, and Elize. There is grinding poverty. There are people who die of AIDS all the time. There are good people, those who struggle with good or bad choices, and then those who do bad things for thousands of reasons. There are girls (and probably boys) who have disappeared by the hundreds, and only their families know their names. Reading this novel may not give those lost souls their lives back – but it may help the living.

Oswald has managed to put some magic into the telling of an otherwise (extremely) grim tale. Perhaps it’s the result of how he deftly breaks the bad news up into bite-sized pieces, delivering us our poison incrementally. It’s also due to how well he tells his story of a young girl who refuses to accept her fate at face value.
The story bobs back and forth in time with ease – it was never too difficult to keep track of what was what – Oswald keeps the cast of characters at a reasonable level, and marvelously distinct from one another – there’s never a moment of mixing anybody up. You know that feeling, perhaps, when you find yourself in chapter 35, and the author revisits something from the beginning…ugh, now, where was that part? Who are we talking about again? While I love Tolkien, for instance, it’s best to have an index to all the characters sitting right by you as you read him.

This is a mystery story, a thriller, ostensibly – but we stay out of criminology or forensics. Libète, whose story this ultimately is, doggedly pursues justice “because nobody should have to die like that”. She blindly hurtles down a path of her own choosing, possibly because she knows that death can come for any of them at any time. This particular time, she and her friend Jak stumble over the bodies of a young woman and her baby boy. These are Claire and Gaspar, mother and child, clearly murdered, their bodies abandoned in the tall grasses of a marsh. As the beginning to a mystery, it is one many of us will recognize. The crime is laid bare, and next, the process of solving it will commence.

But we are not in a place where police and private eyes have the luxury of crime labs, contacts in high and low places, nor even an efficient policing force. Once Libète has informed the only people she can think of who will mobilize action, half of Cité Soleil crowds into the marshes to get a look. This is the nature of murder in this world. One might compare it to, say, Victorian England.

As this is Libète’s story, the reader spends the most time with her. She is a pint-sized, determined detective, by default. She has taken a beating in life before – she’s unafraid to face that again. In her journey, her best friend Jak is her second. He’s cautious, reluctant to attract attention, and hasn’t the desire to solve this crime at all costs. They are opposing natures of humanity – their voices equally compelling at times. Traveling with Libète means danger, as Jak comes to discover, and she does not turn away from this truth. Like any good detective, she has to be a little self-destructive.

We know that Libète will “get her man” in the end. What comes in between is a story of endurance, bravery, as well as a tough look at some of the uglier bits of human nature. That word, human, gets tossed around a lot – perhaps some of us recall a term in high school English devoted to “man’s inhumanity to man”. Because We Are will hopefully find its way into that conversation, and make a splendid addition to it.

There was never a point in this book which found me disengaged – I found myself staying up until one in the morning while reading it (and believe me when I say I don’t really do that anymore – with young kids, it comes with a price tag!) – many emotions might stir within you, but regret will certainly not be one of them.

Find Because We Are: A Novel of Haiti here on amazon, or directly on Oswald’s site – proceeds will benefit Haitians directly.

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Other details:

I picked this book out of the internet ether by chance – it was advertised, I think on FB, and probably on my page because one of my hs classmates has lived and worked in Haiti since before the earthquake. And, likewise, because of that classmate, I noticed the book, its eye-catching cover art, and went right away to look it over.
I downloaded it via amazon’s kindle app on my phone – given the slightly different method of formatting that Ted Oswald uses for dialogue, etc., on the (I believe) 4.3″ screen of my phone, it was slightly off – that said, I quickly forgot any differences in layout. The story and its surrounds are far too alluring to worry about details.

Read about Cite Soleil here
And about the Haitian Quest for Freedom here

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