The tale begins in the year 1770 when the 20-year-old aristocrat Toulouse Valmorain arrived in Saint-Dominique (Haiti) after having been urgently summoned by his father’s business agent. He had all intentions of returning to his pampered life in France as quickly as possible, only to find his father dying of syphilis, the Spanish disease, which was devastating the island. He soon discovered that his father’s sugar cane plantation was nearing ruin in spite of the fact that sugar was in great demand world-wide. He “cursed his luck and set about rolling up his sleeves and getting to work”, and with the help of a generous loan soon put things in order and began to prosper. He didn’t allow himself many luxuries in life, though indulging in one when he fell passionately in love with an intelligent, beautiful, cultured and expensive courtesan named Violette Biosier, a light-skinned “mulatta”, the term used for mixed-race people in that time.
After several years the relationship cooled to that of a loving friendship, and when Valmorain unexpectedly proposed to Eugenia del Solar, a beautiful blond woman of Spanish descent whom he met in Cuba, he turned to Violette to help him spruce up his rather shopworn house in preparation to receive his bride. She convinced him that he needed to provide Eugenia with a skilled lady’s maid and then procured an appealing nine-year-old mulatta slave named Zarité (Tété) to train personally.
After many years and numerous miscarriages, Eugenia finally bore a child—a boy they named Maurice. By that time she was no longer able to care for him, however, because her mental health had deteriorated to the point that she needed constant sedation, and it fell to Zarité to care for the child, whom she loved. Shortly after the birth of of Maurice, Valmorain began raping the pubescent young slave, and in due time she gave birth birth to her own son, who was immediately taken from her; she was allowed to keep the daughter that was born next however, who she named Rosette.
By 1804 Valmorain and his household had immigrated to New Orleans, fleeing the successful anti-slave, anti-colonial insurrection in Haiti, from which he and Maurice had been saved from certain death by Zarité, after having grudgingly and craftily written a document freeing her & Rosette, yet failing to have it validated by a judge, thereby, without her knowledge, continuing to hold her in bondage. Although he lost all of his holdings on Haiti he fortunately had the means to begin anew, prospering once again.
This tale speaks foremost of the great value & price of freedom, of courage and tenacity, of a mother’s love for the child that was not her own, the child that was, & the child that she lost. It speaks of hope and of grief; of voodoo healing; a living Saint…”the spiritual torch” of sinful New Orleans; deep abiding friendship, & exulting romance. There is vengeance.
Zarité tells us: “Music is a wind that blows away the years, memories, and fear, that crouching animal I carry inside me. With the drums the everyday Zarité disappears, and I am again the little girl who danced when she barely knew how to walk. I strike the ground with the soles of my feet and life rises up my legs, spreads up my skeleton, takes possession of me, drives away distress and sweetens my memory.”
This is a powerful story that’s well-paced, with writing that’s lyrical and engrossing. This is the first book I’ve read of hers; I am now eagerly anticipating reading her highly acclaimed House of the Spirits!