cover image Master of the Crossroads

Master of the Crossroads

Madison Smartt Bell. Pantheon Books, $30 (752pp) ISBN 978-0-375-42056-6

Bell manages the bravura feat of bringing coherence and novelistic focus to the intrinsically complex history of Haiti's national liberator in this second installment in his brutal, sweeping trilogy. The first volume, All Souls' Rising, a National Book Award finalist, took the slave revolt in Haiti up to 1793, when the great leader Toussaint Louverture was consolidating power. Continuing his stunning historical fresco, Bell traces the intricate weave of Toussaint's campaigns with an intelligence and verve reminiscent of Shelby Foote's classic military histories, braiding his rich character studies into the larger scheme. Racial classification was a science in Haiti in the 18th century, and the subtlest variations in skin color determined the treatment each person received. Riau, Toussaint's godson, is an ex-slave. For him, the desire of the white planters to reintroduce slavery, and their fundamental racism, is evident, but Riau's hatred doesn't vitiate his humanity. Riau does trust Toussaint's secretary, a white doctor, Antoine H bert. A subplot running like a silver thread in the shadow of the war is H bert's quest for his mulatto mistress, Nanon, after she runs away from H bert's plantation with Choufleur, a sadistic mulatto planter and Nanon's former lover, who exploits the psychodynamics of slavery in a frightening erotic context. The faltering planter aristocracy is represented by Michel Arnaud, who returns to the island although his house and lands were torched in the first phase of the revolt. Arnaud's past is one of murderous cruelty. Now, he is slowly rehabilitating himself, thanks to Claudine, his wife, who suffers from possession by the darkest Vodou spirit, Baron Samedi. Bell continually integrates his history with the sacred Vodou landscape, and as events channel between crossroads, trances, dreams and bloodshed, this mesmerizing, disturbing saga of a half-forgotten war takes on the ominous outlines and biblical proportions of a prophetic vision. (Oct.)