Prior to picking up Keith Madsen’s debut novel, The Sons and Daughters of Toussaint, my view of the country of Haiti had been through the stereotypical lens of the news media. Haiti is typically portrayed as a third-world country in the Caribbean whose people live in grinding poverty, beset by periodic hurricanes, earthquakes, and outbreaks of disease. The Haitians’ lot in life is made even worse by violent crime and a history of intractable political corruption.
The Sons and Daughters of Toussaint served to change this view by first providing the story of Haiti’s break from enslavement by the French, as seen through the eyes of Toussaint Louverture–a principle leader of the Haitian Revolution–then picking up the spirit of revolution in one of his fictional twentieth-first-century descendants, Isaac Brede.
In addition to Isaac Brede, two other characters served to break the stereotype of the Haitian people as wallowing hopelessly in the gutter: Marie-Noelle and her brother Henri. Marie-Noelle is a beautiful young woman who leaves Haiti to take New York by storm as a fashion model. Her brother Henri also leaves Haiti to attend college in the US. Both are talented, smart, and ambitious
The first half of the novel alternates between the 19th and 21st centuries, opening with a chess game between Toussaint Louverture and none other than Napoleon Boneparte.
I was surprised by how bloody and violent the 19th century sections of the novel were, including the killing of women and children. Upon reflection, I came to realize similarities with the Nat Turner Rebellion, which William Styron imagined in The Confessions of Nat Turner. Both novels raise the question of the morality of violent resistance to slavery and oppression when it includes the slaughter of innocents.
Another noteworthy thematic element of The Sons and Daughters of Toussaint is the clothing company started by Marie-Noelle and one of her fellow models. They initially start the company to provide attractive and affordable clothing drawing on their Haitian heritage. As resistance to Isaac Brede’s peace work grows, Marie-Noelle’s company becomes the rallying cry for peaceful resistance to bring about social change, in particular the “Nou pas pe” t-shirts: We are not afraid.
In addition to the social justice theme, the novel features a love story between Marie-Noelle and Isaac Brede. It begins as immature flirting, is tempered by the hardship of time spend apart as Marie-Noelle pursues her modeling career in New York, deepens into marriage, and endures past death.
Towards the end of the novel, I was shocked by what happens to Marie-Noelle at a rally, then gratified to see how she comes to accept it, and, ultimately, to triumph over it to serve as a bastion of hope for the future of her fellow countrymen and women.
I particularly appreciated the message of hope in The Sons and Daughters of Toussaint–that even in a country as troubled as Haiti, all is not lost. I highly recommend this thought-provoking novel to readers who have an interest in questions of social justice and the men and women who grapple with these questions while still fulfilling the need to live their own lives.
I am a retired minister who has taken five trips to Haiti, four to help build an elementary school near Cap Haitian, and one to help dedicate that school. I have been gripped by the contrast between Haiti’s historical importance to the Americas and their present plight as the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. But I have also been impressed by the spirit of the Haitian people, and their persistence in the midst of so much adversity. This started me reading about a great leader I remember reading about back in junior high, Toussaint Louverture. What would happen if his spirit and vision could be revived? Then I came across a quote from Margaret Meade: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” That got me going on applying it to Haiti, and the novel flowed!