The Dew Breaker

The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat
History, Context and Summary
Edwidge Danticat was a Haitian American author whose works focus on the lives of women and their
relationships. She also addressed issues of power, injustice, and poverty. At the age of 12 she moved
over to the states to live with her parents in 1981 but with her creole language and Haitian dress she
struggled to adapt to life in America. Writing was her form of escape. Danticat received numerous
honours, including the Pushcart Short Story Prize.
The title of the book, ‘The Dew Breaker’, comes from the Haitian Creole name for a torturer during
the regime of "Papa Doc", François Duvalier, and "Baby Doc”, Jean Claude Duvalier.
Papa Doc was president in Haiti for fourteen years. He became president in September 1957 and
wanted to assert his power instantly. He reduced the size of the army and organised the 'Tontons
Macouts' which was a private force responsible for terrorising and assassinating alleged foes of
his regime – also known as ‘Dew Breakers’, named this way because they began their torture and
punishments so early in the day that they were the first to break the dew. According ‘The Tonton
Macoutes: The Central Nervous System of Haiti’s Reign of Terror’, “The militia…consisted mostly of
illiterate fanatics that were converted into ruthless zombie-like gunmen,”.
Papa Doc manipulated legislative action so that his term could be extended until 1967, this as well as
other corrupt measures meant that the U.S terminated aid to Haiti. In April 1964 he declared himself
president for life. Papa Doc’s regime of terror quelled political dissent, causing nearly 30,000 deaths.
Jean Claude, ‘Baby Doc’, became president in 1971 at only nineteen years old. Haiti continued a
semi-isolationist approach to foreign relations and Jean Claude remained almost as stoical and
tyrannical as his father – whilst claiming to be slowly introducing democracy to the country – until
finally, in the face of increasing social unrest, he and his wife fled the country in February 1986, and
were replaced by a military council.
Edwidge Danticat’s ‘The Dew Breaker’ is a collection of nine short stories that revolve around the
aftermath and the events of what occurred under Papa and Baby Docs’ rule. It explores revelations
and redemption and the idea of hope within a nation, and its citizens, when all they seem to do is
turn on each other again and again. The Washington Post said of Danticat that; “She delivers her
most beautiful and arresting prose when describing the most brutal atrocities and their emotional
aftermath,”. Above all, it’s a novel about how hope blooms – through pain, and through adversity.
1: The Book of The Dead
The first story follows the catalyst to the entire novel and his daughter, Ka. Ka is a sculptor, and a
talented one at that. She has just sold a piece when her Father reveals his deepest, darkest secret to
her: that instead of being a victim of the bloodthirsty, tyrannical reign of Papa Doc, he was instead a
perpetrator. He was a ‘Dew Breaker’, a torturer lackey of the regime, and the scar across his face
was not from his imprisonment, but from his time imprisoning and torturing others.
2: Seven
The second story explores the fissures in relationships that the regime and the subsequent
separations have caused. A man and his wife have been separated for seven years. During this time,
they have both led new lives and had affairs with new people but must return to each other because
they are married. It speaks of the silence between the couple now, the fear of the wife of her new
home in New York and the death of a Haitian at the hands of the NYPD. The distance that was
between the couple is still there – even when they are together. The trauma of their present and
their pasts has torn them apart irreparably.
3: Water Child
The third story revolves around Nadine, a Haitian woman working as a nurse in New York. It is a tale
of sadness and isolation and loss and of holding back. Nadine struggles with calling her parents back
in Haiti and struggles more knowing that she has kept the fact that she had an abortion recently
under wraps. The father of the aborted baby, her ex-boyfriend, is none other than the character
from the previous story. When she finally speaks to her mother, the conversation is a let-down.
Nadine cares for a woman, in her nursing profession, who has lost her voice and again we deal with
duality and mirror images – Nadine is a woman who is holding back her own voice, isolated and
alone, and sees herself in the woman that she cares for.
The regret here seems to be Nadine ridding herself of the one person she believes she could have
made a meaningful connection with. She robbed herself of her voice by aborting a baby, and this is
shown in the end when she sees a distorted image of herself.
4: The Book of Miracles
The fourth story follows Ka’s mother, Anne. We see her struggle with her husband’s big secret, his
history as a ‘Dew Breaker’, when her and her family attend midnight mass. She thinks she sees a
man wanted for atrocities committed during the regime and it reminds her of her husband and all
that he has done. It panics her, even when it turns out not to be him, and it seems as though Anne
has buried the truth of what her husband has done under the worry that her daughter finds out and
that her husband is outed. It ends with her vowing off midnight mass, and it seems like just another
piece that Haitians had to give of themselves in order to mend what they had left. Another way to
bury the past so far down that nobody will be able to hurt from it anymore.
6: The Bridal Seamstress
The sixth story is an unsettling tale of what the trauma of being punished and mistreated by the
regime does to individuals. Beatrice is a Haitian woman who was punished by a ‘Dew Breaker’ (Ka’s
father) for rejecting him, and she has become somewhat unhinged now due to the paranoia that
lives with her about him finding her and following her in this new life she has built.
7: Monkey Tails
The seventh story explores the discord between the natives of Haiti, the uneven power structure
and the anger that appeared after the exile of Baby Doc. It is told from the perspective of Michel,
who reflects on his childhood and the distance that was between him, his family and his neighbours.
He reflects on the rage and bloodthirstiness of the crowds when the president was gone and the
militia were left, and the death and disappearance of his friends and the people he knew. Duvalier
referred to himself as strong as a monkey’s tail just before the civil unrest that led to his fleeing,
which is a creole saying meaning of great strength, and the height of irony.
9: The Dew Breaker
The ninth story reverts to Ka and her father. It tells the backstory of her Father; how he worked for
the regime, how he enjoyed his time working up the ranks and killing and torturing, until he was sent
to assassinate a preacher. The preacher is not to be killed, for fear of becoming a martyr to the
people and the rebels, but in an unfortunate incident that causes the nasty scar across Ka’s father’s
face he ends the preacher’s life. Finally realising the danger of the regime and sensing his
punishment might be similar to those he has already dealt out, he flees… and runs straight into the
stepsister of the preacher on her way to visit her brother. Thinking he’s escaped, she insists on
helping him tend to his injured face – and from there, they are together, away from the regime, and
Ka comes to be.
Here, Ka tries to understand why her mother would do such a thing, why she would marry such a
man. Anne believes that she has saved her husband’s life by mending him that day, and possibly
saved his soul – but the phone conversation between her and her daughter is rather ambiguous and
really the questions we, as readers, want answers to aren’t truly addressed.
Forget, Regret, Repent – The novel poses the question, can we truly repent if we are trying to forget
what we have done? Can we truly forget that which we regret? The answer for Ka’s father is
obviously a negative. Though he has tried to repent by living a mild and inoffensive life, quiet and
tucked away from everyone, he still cannot forget what he did and what he caused. His reminder
stares him in the mirror every single day.
Trauma – The trauma of the atrocities committed under the regime of Papa Doc echo through to the
new generations of Haitians. The novel deals with the aftermath of trauma, how not only a nation
must be rebuilt but its citizens as individuals must also be formed again. They must learn how to
mesh their own experiences with their new lives and the lives of the new generations, remaining
aware of the atrocities committed and the lesson in morality learned, whilst also moving forward.
The Trial of Ka’s Father – The novel almost reads as a trial for Ka’s father. Is he worthy of
forgiveness? He wishes to repent, sees himself as unworthy of a statue that his daughter has made,
but does he truly understand the impact he has had on the lives of others? That concept is explored
through the lives of others affected by the regime and comes back to remain unanswered in the final
short story ‘The Dew Breaker’. It is almost as if the novel itself mirrors Ka’s indecision on the
character of her father, her inability to reconcile who she grew up with, who raised her, with the
monsters of her childhood and her people. It’s up to the readers, as a witness to the events – and
those now with a fuller picture of what the father has caused – to decide for themselves whether
Ka’s father is worthy of forgiveness.
Duality (‘Marasa Consciousness’) – Marasa is the Haitian creole word for ‘twins’ and is used by
Danticat to describe the duality of nations (Haiti and the Dominican Rep.), but can also be used to
see the duality of emotions and the two different sides to Ka: the daughter of her father, who is not
who she thought he was, and the daughter of her mother, whose brother and therefore her who
suffered at the hands of the regime. It is the power of two: the story of a people oppressed, and the
story of a people rising from the ashes.
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