By Richard Dohrman. Houghton Mifflin and Company, Boston. 1958 502 pages
Comments by Bob Corbett
July 1, 1995
There was a spate of books written by Americans during and shortly after the first U.S. Occupation. Most of them were novels which reflected little understanding of Haiti or the occupation. Some 55 years later Stephen Becker wrote yet another silly novel set in the occupation, A RENDEZVOUS IN HAITI. But in between was one very interesting and worthwhile novel, THE CROSS OF BARON SAMEDI.
Despite the title, this is not a novel about Haitian Voodoo, though a part of the plot revolves around a kanzo service and the mythology of death and Baron Samedi run throughout the book. It is the story of an American officer, Owen Wiley, his young wife, Isabel, who died a hard death in their first year of marriage in Haiti, her family and the family of a young Haiti gendarme and his elite family.
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Dohrman's book for a person interested in Haiti is how well he knew the details of the occupation, and how well he knows the Central Plateau, the novel being situated, in part, in Dame Marie, just north of Hinche.
The thrust of the story is the interlinking of two themes. The story of Owen Wiley's regime in Dame Marie as well as his wife's death there, and the interrelationship between Lieutenant Wiley and the Carraud family, whose head is expected to be the next president of Haiti.
Dohrman demonstrates a detailed knowledge of what was going on in the occupation, especially the rise of noirism, among the elite, and the subtle, if subdued, resistance after the end of the Caco war. The novel itself takes place in 1930.
Along the way one is treated to surprising subtle insights, such as his description while Lieutenant Wiley is attending an Independence Day dance at the National Palace, he observes that the room was divided into three groups:
I was intrigued by this insight that the government officials were separated out into a distinct group. But, on reflection it is obvious. The whites wouldn't accept them socially because they were black. But the elite wouldn't accept them because they were cooperating with the occupation.
In addition to the careful insights into the occupation, Dohrman has patches of exceptional writing, very poetic images and marvelous turns of phrase. Here's a sample I noted along the way:
"He was now thirty; he knew that he had been beaten into a tolerable shape of man and that while all the possibility for riot and aberration might not have been beaten from him, he felt that he had been sufficiently prepared for his next responsibility..."
"He shared the common opinion that Phelps was a second-rate diplomat and a first-rate bore, but there was something wanly pleasant about a man whose professional job it was not to offend."
"Emile Cottrell belonged to a particular malcontent segment of the elite that felt compelled, like certain obsolete animals, to chew on mulatto flesh -- mavericks, the Major called them."
"I cannot vouch, but I have heard that someone, did they say a woman, has been badly trampled. But I do not anticipate that the centipede will miss one of it's legs."
"At dinner they told Eulita, who was made happy by it, but not vastly so; she was too close to life's last phenomenon to feel all the awesomeness of its first..."
"Shortly they were standing among an ebb of people who made them an island and took care not to flow across."
This book is most difficult to find. I'm sure one can order it on interlibrary loan, but it is long since out of print, and I had it on my most wanted list for several years before a used book dealer finally found it for me. If you want to read a slow paced novel which lingers on characters and is extremely attentive to the writing, and which does tell a fascinating story under the cross of the baron, then I recommend you take the trouble to dig up this nearly forty year old relic. THE CROSS OF BARON SAMEDI was Richard Dohrman's first novel. Now I will set out to see if he wrote more. I thoroughly enjoyed his writing.
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