In the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake, fifteen-year-old Shorty, a poor gang member from the slums of Site Soleil, is trapped in the rubble of a ruined hospital, and as he grows weaker he has visions and memories of his life of violence, his lost twin sister, and of Toussaint L’Ouverture, who liberated Haiti from French rule in the 1804.
See the review at WOW Review, Volume 4, Issue 3
- ISBN: 9781599907437
- Author: Lake, Nick
- Published: 2012 , Bloomsbury USA Childrens
- Themes: earthquake, gang, Revolution, Survival, violence
- Descriptors: Caribbean, Haiti, Realistic Fiction, Young Adult (ages 14-18)
- No. of pages: 352
One thought on “In Darkness”
The 12th of January, Haiti commemorated the fourth anniversary of one of the most tragic natural disasters ever recorded when a 7.0-magnitude earthquake took roughly 230,000 lives and left more than a million people homeless. Although there was an overwhelming international response to the disaster and more funds raised and government aide promised than in any natural disaster, less than 10% has actually been disseminated to the island nation. Meanwhile, with each passing year, the earthquake and its impact have become a more distant memory. In Darkness recreates the most tragic of days through the experiences of a young boy, trapped under the rubble of a hospital where he reflects on his life as he lays among the dead and dying.
In Darkness is a novel that tells the story of Haiti – both past and present — by weaving together two historical eras featuring the life of a 15-year-old, Shorty, and that of Haiti’s great liberator, Toussaint L’Ouverture. They become joined spiritually while Shorty waits to be rescued from the goudougoudou, a Creole word for earthquake.
Shorty recounts the past six years of his young life and his longing to find his twin sister, Marguerite, who was snatched up by a rival gang in Cité Soleil—a seaside bidonville described as one of the poorest, most violent slums in the world. Shorty lies underneath the rubble of the collapsed l’Hôpital du Canape-Vert where he had been recovering from gunshot wounds – that is, until his world came tumbling down upon him. He describes his hospital room as, so dark amid the fallen walls and human remains that his only hope for hanging onto life is to hang onto consciousness. He does this by engaging his mind in the recollection of the events of his life.
Shorty’s story tells about the deep and despairing poverty that drives mothers to abandon their babies, that causes young men to seek protection through involvement with gangs, and the toppling of Haiti’s internal security after the final days of Aristide’s presidency. Shorty reflects on his acquaintance with one of the most notorious gang leaders in the Cité, Dread Wilmè, revered by pro-Aristide supporters, including Shorty’s manman (mama), until the UN Peacekeepers shoot and kill Wilmè. He recalls the day when Wilmè saved his life from the “peacekeepers” who shot at anyone who could be a gangster or bandi (bandit).
After Shorty’s father is killed by armed thugs and his sister kidnapped, he adopts the lifestyle of two neighborhood bandi – Biggie and Tintin. The characterization of Biggie and Tintin appear to be based on two other real life characters, Bily and the Haitian Tupac, who are featured in the documentary The Ghosts of Cité Soleil (2007), a controversial film by Asger Leth.
Toussaint L’Ouverture becomes a metaphor for Haiti’s rise and demise. He represents Haiti’s history and evolution out of slavery. For Shorty, Biggie, and Tintin, Toussaint is not just a hero, but one whose life is cut short when he is captured and imprisoned in a dark cell where he ultimately dies. Toussaint’s story is told along with Shorty’s. Both are trapped in darkness. However, both merge together spiritually and emerge into an uncertain future for Haiti.
Nick Lake provides a realistic depiction of life in Haiti for a young man who must beat the odds to survive not only the street life of Cité Soleil and grinding poverty, but also the worst disaster in Haiti’s history. Lake tells the story as though he, himself, had been an observer of Shorty’s life. We know, though, that Shorty is not a real person and the story is fictional; however, what Lake knows is that there are young men like Shorty everywhere in the Cité whose life experiences and struggles are no different than Shorty’s. Lake fairly accurately describes Toussaint L’Ouverture and Dread Wilmé, taking some creative license in their depiction. Still, Lake maintains authenticity for both historical characters.
In Darkness does have some flaws. One of them is the historical timeline of the story. Shorty, who is only 15 years old at the time of the earthquake tells how he embraced the lifestyle of Biggie and Tintin. Given the danger of day-to-day living in Cité Soleil, it is easy to understand why a young man would be enticed into a life of banditry. However, his initiation into thug life would have occurred when he was only 9 or 10 years old since Dread Wilmè was killed during the summer of 2005. Biggie/Haitian Tupac and Tintin/Bily had broken out of the National Penitentiary some time between 2004 and 2005 and also met an untimely death within a year of their escape.
It is unclear why Shorty begins recollecting his relationship with Biggie, Tintin, and Dread Wilmè. The recollection does not include any events that occurred between 2005 and 2010. The reader is left with a significant historical gap between the time just after Aristide was deposed and the earthquake. During that five-year period, Haiti had two presidents—one appointed (Boniface Alexandre) and one elected (René Préval)—and Biggie/Haitian Tupac and Tintin/Bily were reported killed.
Another area of questionable authenticity is Lake’s use of Haitian Creole. He interjects Creole words such as anyen, which means both “anything” and “nothing,” but it is unclear why he uses this word as well as others so gratuitously. The Creole words he chooses do not add any insight into the culture or give us any insights into the main character. In fact, they interfere with the reader’s understanding of the story if the reader is unfamiliar with Creole. Lake does not provide any context that would help one decipher the word, nor does he provide a glossary. Furthermore, he does not italicise the words so that a young reader would understand that the word is a foreign word. Even the word manman was unclear to many of my middle school students. Interweaving a native language in a story that takes place in another country can be very effective in helping the reader learn more about the culture. However, these words and phrases should add depth and meaning to the story when there is a reason for using them.
An additional area of questionable authenticity is the inclusion of French in everyday language and in vodou chants. Although French is one of Haiti’s official languages, it is rarely spoken in everyday contexts and never spoken in vodou chants. French is the language of the colonizers, whereas Creole is the language most associated with the Haitian identity. Furthering the problems, at times, Lake will mix up Creole and French in the same sentence or chant. Vodou is a religion and worldview that came from West Africa—transported by slaves who would enlist the service of gods and ancestors to overthrow their French enslavers. Therefore, it makes no sense for French words to occur in the chants.
In spite of some problems with authenticity, In Darkness is riveting and amazingly informational. It may be a challenge for some readers to fully grasp the significance of the story if they do not know who Toussaint L’Ouverture is and why his story is relevant to Shorty’s story. However, an introduction about how Haiti became the first Black republic and the historical period of Jean-Bertrand Aristide second term as president would be beneficial to helping young readers understand the significance of the two characters.
I found In Darkness to be a powerful read–a surprising read, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle without a picture to guide. Once the edges were framed, the pieces fit together and a picture of Haiti’s past and present emerged.
Lake masterfully creates two intersecting paths for readers to follow; present-day Haiti’s, Shorty and Haiti’s past, Toussaint L’Ouverture. At first, Shorty’s and L’Ouverture’s lives seem distinctly separate, but as readers move from “Now” to “Then” and “Always”, opportunities surface for deep discussions and thoughtful questions about hate, sadness, and justice. For example, Shorty says,
When you keep hurting someone, you do one of three things. Either you fill them up with hate, and they destroy everything around them. Or you fill them up with sadness, and they destroy themselves. Or you fill them up with justice, and they try to destroy everything that’s bad and cruel in the world. Me, I was the first kind of person” (p. 86).
Seven pages later, L’Ouverture makes an almost identical statement, but “fancied that he was the third kind of person…” (p. 93).
Each of Lake’s keystrokes is a point/counterpoint between Shorty and L’Ouverture. Shorty is a twin, L’Ouverture is a twin; Shorty lost his twin, L’Ouverture lost his twin; and each feels empty without their other half. Neither believe in vodou, but both are inextricably linked through vodou; and perhaps it is vodou that opens the door for each to know the other. Each witness and experience violence. Both are inevitably drawn into the politics of their time. Both question whether the end justifies the means. And while they travel similar paths, their motivations are quite different. It is this kind of juxtaposition between Shorty and L’Ouverture, like light and shadow on a picture, that allows readers insight into Shorty’s development from one who sought vengeance to one who seeks justice.
In Darkness exhibits both the literal and figurative. Shorty’s story begins with, “I am the voice in the dark, calling out for your help…. I am the voice calling for you to come and dig me out.” (p. 1). L’Ouverture, but not his story, comes to an end with, “I am in darkness, in a small space, and my mind is a small dark place, too…. We are all trapped in a cave, and that cave is ourselves…” (p. 318). It is their travel into and out of darkness that defines these two: Shorty moving from a gang messenger to a gang killer to a seeker of redemption, trapped in rubble from an earthquake. L’Ouverture moving from a house servant to the leader of a successful slave revolt to a prisoner of France in an “underground cell, tiny, without windows of any kind” (p. 315). Both find themselves in the dark, where Shorty exclaims he cannot “tell when I’m dreaming and when I’m just thinking” (p.53) and L’Ouverture laments he is unable to “distinguish between…dreams and reality” (p. 315). Upon his death, L’Ouverture rises from his body and moves through time and place to Shorty, who realizes he is no longer alone and the place left empty by his missing twin is filled. As Shorty is rescued from the rubble, he thinks, “I am a dead person dug up and brought out in the light…. I was in darkness, but now I am in light” (p. 336).
As I began reading In Darkness, I was figuratively, in the dark for the first few pages. I could not make sense of the story; I could not see the picture. I wrote notes such as, “What the heck does this mean?” “Is he hallucinating?” “Is this true?” I began looking up bits of information and as the pieces came together, I was overwhelmed with Lake’s ability to tell the story of Shorty, L’Ouverture, and Haiti. This novel draws readers into its story; it begs for discussion, and it invites investigation for a place, rightly or wrongly, “named as the most dangerous place on earth” (p. 340), Cité Soleil.