Note: This review was published November 12, 2000, in the Seattle Times ...
The American Revolution helped inspire the French Revolution, which in turn sparked the Haitian Revolution -- an uprising of Africans against the sugar plantation owners who wrung their fabulous wealth from slave labor. Madison Smartt Bell's projected trilogy of historical novels tells the least well known of these momentous late-18th-century stories.
Volume 1, "All Souls Rising," traced the gruesome first stages of the rebellion in the French colony then called Saint Domingue, from 1791 to 1794. One who hasn't read that harrowing masterpiece can still enjoy Volume 2, "Master of the Crossroads," based on events of the next five years. In this novel the revolution is well under way, but the outcome is still uncertain.
It's a tumultuous, confusing time. The Spanish, who own the eastern half of Saint Domingue, and the British, who are at war with France, separately hope to oust the French, subdue the blacks, and possess the island known worldwide as the Jewel of the Antilles. Among the islanders, the French blancs, or white colonials, have split into factions: the royalists who want to enslave the Africans again, and the revolutionaries who believe that liberty is a universal human right. Old disputes flare between native-born Haitians and immigrants, between mulatto plantation owners and poorer mulattos, between rivals among the island's 500,000 rebellious Africans and, more broadly, between members of the resident races - 64 in all, according to France's official classification of blends ranging from Blanc to Négre.
Toussaint Louverture, whose amazing career Jacob Lawrence memorialized in a series of paintings, is at the center of the storm. Small and tough, formerly a slave, he possesses such extraordinary charisma and talent for leadership that he can force, frighten, mystify, or cajole various factions into agreeing to work for peace. Toussaint unites the armed, roving bands of blacks who seized their liberty and transforms them into a well-disciplined army. A brilliant military tactician, he regularly defeats the English and Spanish forces. His political gifts make him a formidable negotiator with the French and a master at switching alliances at strategic moments. He alone seems committed to protecting, regardless of the race or ideology of their owners, the lives and property that survived the time of bloodbath and burning.
Toussaint's motives are endlessly debated in the book. People close to him believe that he is unselfishly devoted to securing liberty and peace for everyone. But rumors that he secretly plans to crown himself King and reinstate slavery multiply. We view him from the perspectives of many different characters, yet he remains a mystery: a presence with a godlike power in crisis, an inscrutable Master of the Crossroads like the voudou deity of crossings and change, Legba.
Readers who can tolerate a little disorientation from chaotic historical events swirling around an enigmatic hero will have a wonderful time with this novel. Many of the episodes are works of literary art, the Haitian landscape is superbly rendered, and the characters are fully realized and memorable. We come to care deeply about them: Doctor Hébert; his beloved mistress Nanon; his sister Elise and her smuggler husband Tocquet; Hébert's friends the French captain Maillart and the African captain Riau; the African soldier Guiaou who is Riau's rival in love; plucky, wanton Isabelle; the dreamy boy-priest Moustique; the elusive, fascinating Toussaint.
Since Bell can't string their stories on a clear historical plot-line (this history is a tangle) he braids the everyday incidents and subtleties of their private lives into a central strand to which scattered public events can be tied. The characters, absorbed in ordinary pursuits, are regularly pulled into battles and intrigues, then released again into personal concerns. The point of view shifts from chapter to chapter, and we open each new one with the pleasure of greeting an old friend.
Nobody achieves an overall view of events -- which is partly the point. Yet even patient readers will wish for an index of characters keyed to page numbers. It's hard to keep people named Dessources, Dessalines, Desrouleaux, and Desfourneaux straight in a complicated narrative (sometimes set in Descahaux) with a cast of hundreds that also includes Delahaye and Dieudonné. The author's memory itself falters - the girl Paulette is called Pauline for a while -- but the Glossary and Chronology help.
Without them "Master of the Crossroads" would still be a stunning achievement: marvelously crafted, meticulous in its historical detail, magnificent in its sweep.