The Dew Breaker

Told from the perspective of Alice, mother of Ka and wife of the eponymous dew breaker, “The Book of Miracles” concerns a Christmas Eve Mass during which Ka catches sight of someone who bears a striking resemblance to the former head of a Haitian death squad. I was particularly struck by the parallel structure of the titles “The Book of Miracles” and “The Book of the Dead,” a formal link that emphasizes the unique and seemingly contradictory role of spirituality within the stories. Alice, a devout Catholic, certainly seems to find herself spiritually isolated from the rest of her family: “Between her daughter, who chose not to believe in God, and her husband, who went to the Brooklyn Museum every week…to worship…at the foot of Ancient Egyptian statues, she felt outnumbered by pagans” (70). Indeed, this so-called “pagan” presence permeates the stories, from the ancient Egyptian traditions invoked by Ka’s own name to the “shrine to unborn children in Japan” (57) that Nadine recreates in remembrance of her unborn child. If one accepts Alice’s statement that “Americans don’t have much faith” (73), Alice, as a pious immigrant, is certainly outnumbered by the faithless masses.   

I am especially intrigued by the fact that Alice’s relationship with her husband seems to be predicated on this opposition between death and miracles. He, dew breaker and self-confirmed killer, obsesses himself with the preparation of bodies and the weighing of hearts while she concerns herself with “a…Filipino man who’d seen an image of the Madonna in a white rose petal” (73); he has enacted death; she has seemingly enacted “the miracle of her husband’s transformation” (70-1). It is interesting that he seems to look to the next world for salvation–to the afterlife, and also to a vicarious existence through his daughter, or “ka,”–while Alice looks to the miracles of this world for that same absolution. Though the Christian faith, as illustrated by the resurrection of Jesus, puts forward the notion that miracles supersede death, what are we to make of the fact that “The Book of Miracles” precedes “The Book of the Dead” in chronological order? Can the miracle of Alice’s husband’s “transformation” effectively erase the stain of death from his hands, or will his sins as dew breaker ultimately render that so-called miracle impotent?   

Questions of death and spirituality arise once again in “Night Talkers,” the story of Dany, who returns to Haiti to share his discovery of the man who killed his parents, only to witness the death of his aunt. Christian mythos echoes deeply here, particularly in the first scene, which finds Dany wandering beneath “the scorching midday sun…deep in the Haitian countryside, where the closest village seemed like a grain of sand in the valley below” (87). His observation that the lushness of his aunt’s garden was “a miracle, given the barren mountain range he’d just traveled through” (93) hints at the title of previous story. In addition, the notion of the “return of the prodigal son” seems to manifest itself in the form of Dany and Claude, both of whom have returned to Haiti but under starkly different circumstances. Dany, a seemingly temporary visitor, arrives to a warm welcome, hoping to somehow vindicate his slain parents with the knowledge of their killer. Claude, on the other hand, arrives in the village from prison as a convicted murderer. How does Claude serve as a foil to Dany and to what purpose? How do their different circumstances affect their integration back into Haitian society? And how does Claude’s thoughtless murder of his father play into other representations of fathers present in The Dew Breaker?