Brush With Haiti:
Kathleen A. Tobin
As you look out of the window of a plane you see the landscape of the place that you are leaving and then the one you are about to visit. Leaving a special place that is packed with history and the beauty of the land you would never expect it to change in a flash. The Island of Hispaniola is the home to the country of Haiti. Columbus claimed this special island for Spain in the year 1492. Establishing the first Spanish settlements in the Americas dear Cap-Haitian many Spanish soldiers and missionaries including colonists followed suit. So, imagine visiting this beautiful place and having the unthinkable happen.
There have been many leaders in this country, a lot of economic and political strife and then in 1964 Francois Duvalier the elected President who ruled with more than just an iron hand and created a dictatorship form of government, criticized for his abuse of his people and infringing on their human rights, became President for life in 1964 under the new constitution.
As our story opens we learn that sometimes fate steps in a plays a unique hand in our lives. Imagine leaving Haiti after a brief visit and finding out that just minutes after you left the country withstood a devastating earthquake and you were lucky to get out before this happened.
Meet author Kathleen A. Tobin as she relates her story to readers beginning with landing at O’Hare airport, a phone call that would take more than just her breath away and the harsh reality that there was an earthquake in Haiti. As you look through the window of the plane now you would see devastation, destruction, and death from a quake that was over 7.9 on the Richter scale. Speaking to her friend Renate who loved in Haiti for over 6 years the thought that she or our author would have been there at the time this happened was frightening.
Then the author relates information about her teaching experiences and the fact that her primary focus was on Latin American History. Explaining how this would give her the proper perspective about this country and the fact that her friend Renate was able to arrange for her to meet people in the education field would allow her to share her ideas and teaching methods. But, the realities set back in and the author realizes the magnitude of what her mother told her on the phone and she decides to spend the night with her family. Within Chapter 2 she shares her first teaching experiences and the history of the country including their President Aristide and why she was so fascinated with him. Next, she discusses how she came to teach not only U.S. History and a course in Women in America but was able to add one in Caribbean studies, which she shares with the reading in Chapter 3 in detail including her understanding of the tensions between the Latino and Black students. Sharing her lessons how she would bring the students together and the interesting discussions rounds out this chapter.
A chance meeting at a conference she was speaking at would change it all for the author. Meeting someone that put her in touch with a project called The Heartland Center and a priest that would be her inspiration to go along on their journey to Haiti, the author becomes enveloped in this amazing project. Many interesting people joining the group and representing the dioceses the author begins to question her relationship with the Church, God and how she could help others being part of this project. Speaking to a group about the project and how they would not only focus on the agriculture of the country but also give money to the orphanages to help the children, the author begins to rethink much of her life, her failed marriage and her goal to want to help seek justice for the people of Haiti. Teaching and researching her lessons on both Latin and Caribbean studies helped her to really focus on what she was doing and the excitement of the trip brought it to light.
Visiting Haiti made a lasting impression on the author as she describes the trip from the beginning, the excitement during the flight and the many different people that she meets along the way. Learning about the soil project, visiting the home of one of the families involved, going to a women’s artisan cooperative and reading the descriptions of what she saw and understanding the customs and culture allows the reader to go on the journey along with the author.
The crafts that are described and made are products that everyone can use and hopefully bring money to other underdeveloped regions of Latin America. As the author describes the items that caught her attention and the many she wanted to purchase plus the pride in which the person took who made these amazing things. Next, her journey takes her to the one place that she really did not want to see, the orphanages. Father Tom Gallan is the priest that is involved with the project and although she told him her feelings she felt she could not remain behind. Recounting what she saw was quite heartbreaking and reliving it by writing what she experienced brought it all back as so many children are left behind when parents cannot take care of them while others need special care due to illnesses. Describing the orphanage, the children the way the interacted and responded brings it all to light for the reader and then she describes the second one as there were no children present making the visit easier. The next visit was to an orphanage with children infected with Aids and the last affiliated with Montessori education. The remainder of Chapter 14 describes her visit.
Next she describes the different masses she attended in Haiti, the customs and the way people dressed.
While reading the book you become engrossed in the story about the trip but then the author digresses to her past, which sometimes detracts from the story. The main event has yet to be addressed as I want to learn more about the earthquake, how it affected the people of Haiti and her feelings about having just left there. Each chapter begins with either a visit to a part of the country and the veers off to a bar, her thoughts about someone she met and who is no longer in her life and then the family and her divorce. She then includes the history of the country and our relationship with Haiti via George Bush, which was interesting, but once again she relates it to her family, the children and discussions they had in school regarding the attack on Iraq. After visiting the Haiti in 2003 the author cannot wait to go back since all of the turmoil and violence against the Aristide administration.
Jean-Bertrand Aristide is a Catholic priest who was elected President of Haiti in 1990. The following year the army ousted him but in 1994 the threat of a U.S. invasion forced the military to bring him back. In 1995 Rene Garcia Preval replaced him and then in 2000 his party won the election and he was back as President. The fighting, the turmoil and conflicts resulted in his resigning in 2004 stating the U.S. forced him out.
The author describes her feelings and the political unrest in her own words. But, once again she digresses and tells about a campus presentation, candy that she purchases and trouble with the law. Chapter 17 flashes back to her classes and memories of seating positions followed by the different people in the classes and then assigned reading in Chapter 18.
Throughout the novel we hear the author’s thoughts and voice telling about her many trips to Haiti her support system in her friend Renate and the many other people that she meets. Sharing her teaching experiences with the reader and her encounters with different students brings to light her passion for teaching and the many areas that she focuses in on in her lessons. She even tells about a wonderful student whose husband helped fund her trip to Haiti hoping she would speak about her trip when she comes home.
We learn about the earthquake on page 200 and the outpouring of questions from friends and co-workers but once again she digresses and discusses lessons, courses, other feelings and her last day in the country before the earthquake even reaching out to a counselor to talk about her feelings brings the quake front a center. As the author tells a little about the earthquake and then teaching at a university in Haiti called Unoka we learn about the students, how so many moved on with their lives but not enough about what she saw when she went back there and what happened to the country after the quake and what kind of relief of help they were getting.
When the realities of what happened as a result of the earthquake are brought to light the author discusses her teaching experiences, the students and her need to continue her research in a different area that she felt would help bring to light the issues that would help the country try and restore itself. But, as you read pages 274-275 you learn a out the many people living in the streets, in tents in Port-au-Prince and the political red tape and the fact that there was so much that could be done and much that would never be accomplished. Where the author decides to focus her research and what her final decisions about her trip and read the remaining chapters and hear her thoughts yourself. Brush with Haiti: You will even learn why she titled it this after hearing her discussion with her doctor and explaining why. One country that has never been allowed to prosper and so many people that need the help and hopefully someday they will get it. Could it be that the scientists really knew this was coming and the facts were ignored? The view from the window changed read this book and find out why.
Fran Lewis: reviewer