By C. Richard Gillespie. New York: toExcel, 1998.
Comments by Bob Corbett
Back in 1991, 200th anniversary of the beginning of the Haitian Revolution, I was still publishing a printed magazine about Haiti called STRETCH. I decided to do a series of essays on the Revolution and did. At the end of the final one I made a promise to my readers which I never kept. In a section on "Follow-up Essays" I said: "Will the real Toussaint Louverture please stand up. Historians of Haiti usually choose sides. Some say Toussaint was humane, a brilliant strategist, a mover of people, creator of the nation -- the first Haitian saint, a hero. Others see a Machiavellian schemer out to aggrandize is own position no matter what happened to his brother and sister Haitians. Again, I'll try to sort out the argument and shed some light on the WHO of Toussaint Louverture."
I never delivered that essay (nor the other two I also promised.) Thing leads on to thing as they say. However, I remained intrigued by the person of Toussaint Louverture. All of the non-fiction biographical treatments I read tended toward one hard line or the other and never persuaded me. I began to hope that the freer world of historical fiction might allow authors more freedom to deal with the complexities without have to grind toward a particular pre-chosen political stance.
One of those attempts to place Toussaint on center stage is in the novel from list member Madison Smartt Bell (ALL SOULS RISING). I wasn't as taken with Madison's Toussaint as I had hoped to be and raised those questions in my review of that book. Since I have learned that ALL SOULS RISING is the first in a planned trilogy and that Toussaint will figure centrally in the remaining two volumes. I look forward to their coming.
Recently, however, my search and nearly obsessive reading on this the topic of Toussaint was rewarded by another book from a member of the Corbett list, C. Richard Gillespie, or Dick Gillespie as he calls himself on list. His novel PAPA TOUSSAINT is a simply brilliant treatment of Toussaint, one of the most persuasive I have yet read.
The story is told by Placide, Toussaint's adopted son. The novel opens in 1816 in France where he lives in exile. Placide has decided to write the story of his father so that history may know true and full story. Gillespie skillfully and grippingly weaves Placide's Toussaint into life for us over the next 383 pages. This is a novel, it has all the virtues of the novelist's freedom to get inside his main character, revealing his interpreted notions of the thoughts, feelings, motivations and dreams of the character. However, it is also an historical novel written by a person dedicated to his title character and to a serious notion of scholarship. Gillespie is and has been a dedicated student of the Revolution and, especially, the person of Toussaint Louverture. After the novel has ended Gillespie presents a detailed bibliography of sources in both English and French which is most impressive. The novel was finished several years ago, and I must acknowledge a deep gratitude to Dick Gillespie who donated MOUNDS of his source materials to my library, which alone constitutes the largest bulk of what I have on the Haitian Revolution, which is massive.
I will not try to answer the question: who is Gillespie's Toussaint? Nor will I attempt a critical assessment of that vision. This unusual critical silence is for two reasons: to the latter task, Gillespie's Toussaint is simply richer and more detailed and developed than I am capable of assessing. Right or wrong about his Toussaint, Gillespie knows much more than I and I would be doing the reader a disservice to try to evaluate it from my position of lesser knowledge. But even if I were Gillespie's peer in this area, which I am not, I wouldn't want to spoil it for you. Gillespie's Toussaint is as intriguing in the development and unfolding as in the final picture. I don't want to spoil that for you. The book would make a simply marvelous summer read and I'll leave that treat to you rather than wrap up the prize in these comments.
That said, however, I must raise one concern I have about the success of Gillespie's fictional vehicle, the story told by Toussaint's adopted son, Placide. In many ways the fictional device is brilliant. Placide is close to his father, often with and around him, privy to some of his inner thoughts and revelations. He is a novelist's ideal as narrator. Nonetheless, I worry that Gillespie gets too carried away with the omniscience of Placide. Even with his personal closeness, physical and emotionally, to his father, even with Placide's contact with those closest to his father's work, Placide just seems to me to know too much. At times it is as though Gillespie forgets that Placide is OUTSIDE and is not himself Toussaint, and thus is not quite privy to everything Toussaint did, thought and felt.
But this is a small quibble. Perhaps I am being too demanding of Gillespie. You will have to decide.
I would think that none who read this book, from the most knowledgeable scholars to those who know little and have only heard the most generalized stories of Toussaint's life, will be disappointed in Gillespie's tour-de-force in revealing his view of "the real Toussaint." The novel is, as novel, a gripping tale. It is meticulously historical. In the end Gillespie stands tall as a most important interpreter of the character and person of Toussaint Louverture. Has he actually made the real Toussaint stand up? Well, let's discuss that after you've read the book...
Dick Gillespie, in addition to being a list-member (after reading all our mail, who has time for any other life?), is professor emeritus at Towson University in Baltimore. He founded the academic theater program there and is an actor, theater director and award-winning playwright. He has an earlier book THE JAMES ADAMS FLOATING THEATRE, a history of the showboat which served as Edna Ferber's model for the show boat in her novel, later made into the famous musical and motion picture. PAPA TOUSSAINT is Dick's first novel. But now, Dick, about the character and person of Dessalines..
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