Thursday, February 05, 2009

CRC 1: "Masters of the Dew"

My first book for the Caribbean Reading Challenge.

Masters of the Dew by Jacques Roumain, published 1944, translated from the French by Langston Hughes and Mercer Cook.

Masters of the Dew is concerned with the story of Manuel Jan - Josef, a Haitian peasant who has been absent from his native village for 15 years working in the canefields of Cuba, who returns home to find the life he knew radically altered by two devastating changes.  First is a serious drought the effects of which are compounded by years of poor agricultural practices which have led to serious erosion of the fields and the drying-up of the streams which watered the area.  Second is the splintering of the village into two antithetical factions as the consequence of a blood-feud which occurred shortly after  Manuel had left the village.  The villagers are on the brink of starvation, and those who can are beginning to leave the area; it appears that the village is fated to die.  

Manuel realizes that both problems will have to be solved if the village and its life are to be saved.  He begins to search in the nearby mountains for water; he also begins to talk to some of the villagers about the need for concerted action, based on his experiences and involvement in Cuba in workers' strikes against the sugar companies.  The local authorities hear of his statements about how powerful the peasants can be if they combine their efforts, are worried lest he turn his ideas to political actions, and warn him not to pursue such ideas.  After much searching, Manuel locates a large reservoir of fresh water in an unexplored valley; he tells only one person where the water is located, Annaise, a young woman he's fallen in love with but whose family is on the opposite side of the feud from his own; she returns his love, and takes up the challenge of trying to bring the factions together by getting the women of her faction to convince the men to work with the other side to build the canals and waterways necessary to bring the water to the fields.  

He himself attempts first to convince the men of his own side, then finally asks Larivoire, a respected elder of the other faction, to call a meeting which he attends and attempts to persuade those men to work with those of his family's faction, to create a coumbite, a united group of individuals who work together to achieve goals no individual alone could achieve.  (The coumbite is an old tradition which has been abandoned in the wake of the feud.)  He is opposed by Gervilen, a drunken bully who wishes to keep the feud going and who is also jealous of Manuel because of Annaise; Gervilen angrily leaves the meeting but attacks and stabs Manuel afterwards.  Manuel reaches home and dies shortly afterwards, but not before asking his mother to keep secret the cause of his death because he knows that only if the feud ends can the village survive and says to her, "Tell Larivoire the will of my blood that's been shed -- reconciliation -- reconciliation -- so life can start all over again, so that day can break on the dew."

After Manuel's funeral, his mother carries out his dying wish and asks Larivoire to call a meeting of the men of the opposing faction; addressing them, she tells them of Manuel's last words and his wish for the feud to end so the villagers can indeed once again work together to build the irrigation system that will save the village.  Both factions finally agree, and Annaise reveals the location of the reservoir. The novel ends with the coumbite completing the irrigation system and, as the first water beings to flow to the fields again, Annaise tells Manuel's mother that Manuel isn't really dead because she is carrying his child.


Blogger Unknown said...

It is a story of Haiti almost 60 years ago, and yet it is strikingly same as in 2011 as Roumain's view 60 years ago. Haiti's independent revolution is still not finished.

12:31 PM  

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