three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
28-May-June-2007
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A Biography

A-Toussaint LouvertureIn what has been described as the most successful large-scale slave revolt in history, Haiti’s 1803 independence from France resulted largely from the heroic leadership of Toussaint Louverture, a former slave who led a 12-year uprising in the French slave colony of St. Domingue before dying in Napoleonic captivity. Madison Smartt Bell’s fictional trilogy covered the Haitian revolution in All Souls Rising, Master of the Crossroads, and The Stone That the Builder Refused ( 4 of 5 Stars Selection Mar/Apr 2005). Bell now turns to Haiti’s most important historical figure. A former slave and slave owner, a devout Catholic and voodoo practitioner, a warlord for the oppressed and self-appointed dictator, Louverture was a man of contradictions who ascended to the role of Haitian military rebel late in life, at age 50, and whose efforts had far-reaching consequences for America.
Pantheon. 333 pages. $27. ISBN: 0375423370

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Toussaint Louverture’s story is necessarily speculative, given the paucity of material, but Bell has used that small but surprisingly rich vein with skill and judiciousness. He has stripped away the myths—demonology as well as hagiography—to give us a nuanced, sympathetic portrait of a complicated, tragic, but undeniably heroic figure." Michael J. Bonafield

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"One of the great strengths of Bell’s book is the way it succinctly delineates and animates the swiftly changing alliances and conflicts inside and outside the island as Toussaint and his forces successfully battle French, Spanish, British, planter, and gens du couleur armies. … Bell is often forced to speculate about Toussaint’s inner life … in ways that are not as satisfying as his narration and explication of complex historical events." James Smethurst

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"I can’t help wondering whether Bell, so well known for his novels of Haiti, is bending over backward to show that as a biographer he is not making anything up. … Still, this is the best biography of Toussaint yet, in large part because Bell does not shy away from the man’s contradictions." Adam Hochschild

Wall Street Journal 3 of 5 Stars
"In passing judgment on Toussaint, one should take into account his legacy—the political actors and the institutions that he helped bring about and that survived him. And here is where Mr. Bell is perhaps too lenient." Alvaro Vargas Llosa

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"This biography largely achieves Bell’s aim of shedding light on the personality of Louverture. Haiti’s liberator comes across here as a skilled orator, a gifted writer and a leader who exuded the utmost confidence." Theola Labbé

Atlanta Jrnl-Constitution 2.5 of 5 Stars
"[Bell’s] gifts as a narrative writer are clear here, as in his fiction, marked by a worthy challenge in choice of topic and an admirable ambition. However, he could have more fully used a writer’s license to speculate, to imagine and to better control the narrative through pacing." Joel Whitney

Critical Summary

Madison Smartt Bell’s extensive work on Haitian history makes him the right man to tackle Louverture, an elusive but significant figure. Critics felt, however, that since so little is known about him prior to age 50 (something even Bell himself concedes), Bell might have better served his subject with historical fiction. Instead, he devotes much of the book to dry, academic information instead of dramatic storytelling. Bell’s forthright presentation of Louverture’s multifaceted personality and contradictions, however, intrigued critics the most. While reviewers debated the quality of previous biographies, all felt the necessity for something new on Louverture, especially considering his legacy in Haitian and African American cultures and his effect on Napoleonic expansion.

Cited by the Critics

The Kingdom of This World | Alejo Carpentier (1949): After Haiti freed itself from French colonial rule in 1803, it entered an era of even harsher repression—that of King Henri-Christophe, a former slave and the first black king to rule the region.