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Dance on the Volcano, Marie Vieux-Chauvet

October 2, 2016

Dance on the Volcano, Marie Vieux-Chauvet (1916-1973).  Archipelago (2016), 496 pages.  Kaiama L Glover (Translator).  First published in French in 1957. Forthcoming December 2016.

5 stars

A newly-translated historical novel, by a major Haitian writer, about a mixed-race Haitian woman whose fine singing challenged the racial divide in the chaotic years leading up to the Haitian Revolution in the 1790s.

Marie Vieux-Chauvet was a Haitian novelist, poet and playwright.  Born and educated in Port-au-Prince, she is one of those who established the Haitian literary tradition.  Her novels about life under the dictatorship of “Papa” Francois Duvalier led to her exile from her country.  She writes big sweeping novels which grapple with society and politics through the lens of a variety of characters.

Dance on the Volcano is a big novel, full of characters from different backgrounds and levels of society set in a time when Haiti was caught in the midst of chaos.  Society was sharply divided between slaves, free blacks, and whites but none of the groups unified.  Free blacks were often mulattoes who faced harsh restrictions.  None the less some freemen owned their own slaves and were wealthy competitors of the white plantation owners.  Some wealthy whites wanted more power to control black freemen and slaves.  They were in opposition to the French colonial forces that wanted the blacks, slave and free, to be treated humanely.  Other whites were comfortable associating with free blacks and helped them challenge the rules meant to define them.  Ideas of freedom and equality advocated by the American and French Revolutions were being discussed, and by the 1790s, revolution had begun.

Against this complicated background, Vieux-Chauvet tells the story of Minette, a beautiful young freewoman, only 15 when the book begins.  She lives in poverty with her single mother and her younger sister.  Her remarkable singing voice is noted by white neighbors who train her to sing on stage.  Although it is illegal for a free black to perform, rules get bent and she becomes a popular sensation, moving among black and white admirers.  She falls in love with a man who does not share her commitment to helping others of her race, and their love-hate relationship is a tumultuous one.  Moving around the island, she is brought into close contact with a wide variety of Haitians.    Although all are clearly marked by race, each responds to his or her place in society differently.  For those of us accustomed to thinking about race in neat black and white divisions, the racial mix of this novel is amazing.

In some ways, The Dance on the Volcano is a classic epic on the order of War and Peace, full of fascinating characters, fine writing, and multiple subplots, all held in a delicate balance.  Few classics, however, pay so much careful attention to the complex interactions of those outside of ruling circles.  This book is unique treat that I gladly recommend to a wide range of readers.


One Comment leave one →
  1. Kola King permalink
    October 17, 2016 7:42 am

    Brilliant review. I hope to grab a copy soon.

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