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The Forgotten Revolution
Madison Smartt Bell's Master of the Crossroads

by Doug Childers

Madison Smartt Bell's Master of the Crossroads, the second volume in his projected trilogy about the Haitian Revolution, is a stunning achievement with a beautifully tragic figure at its center.

In the wake of the French Revolution, Saint Domingue (modern-day Haiti) staged its own revolt with varied motivations, as Madison Smartt Bell showed in his All Souls' Rising (a 1995 National Book Award finalist in fiction). Landowners and slave owners wanted to gain their economic independence from France (as the Americans had done fifteen years before), and both enslaved Africans and persons of mixed African / European blood wanted to make the French and American Revolution's declaration of rights apply to all people, regardless of race. While the intentions may have been noble, though, the revolt itself was not. Two thousand whites were killed and nearly two hundred sugar plantations burned, but the French National Assembly failed to issue a definitive gesture of solidarity to either side, and the warring factions themselves failed to force a military solution.

Master of the Crossroads
Madison Smartt Bell
733 pp.

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Saint Domingue thus stands at a crossroads, of sorts, as Master of the Crossroads (Bell's second volume in a projected trilogy) begins in 1793, with slavery / freedom and colony / independent state as the opposing points. But the black general Toussaint Louverture, the novel's hero, is equally at a crossroads as he considers shifting his allegiance from Spain to France, and his rise to power in the course of the novel marks his own mastery of the crossroads and his role as the person who opens the gate to Saint Domingue's new future ('L'ouverture,' of course, means 'opening'). There is also a vodou connection to the crossroads theme, although Bell allows it only to float suggestively through the text: Legba is the Vodou god of the crossroads and change (he "opens the world of spirits and dead souls to the world of living people," as Bell writes), and Bell has suggested in interviews (again without stating it explicitly in the novel) that he considers Toussaint himself to have embodied both Legba and his more violent, demonic aspect, Mait' Kalfou ('Master of the Crossroads').

Even without the vodou associations, Toussaint is a moving, tragic figure who makes a perfect subject for extended consideration in both fiction and nonfiction: a former slave, he rose through military victories to serve as the colony's Lieutenant Governor (a position in the colonial hierarchy that no other nonwhite person had achieved) as well as its moral leader, only to be defeated by Napoleon's army and find himself imprisoned in a fortress in the French Alps less than a decade after he declared himself 'Louverture' and threw his military weight behind France. While he doesn't completely demystify and explain away all of Toussaint's complexities ("Toussaint's mind was like a mirror in a lightless room, and no one knew whence came the light that gave it clarity"), Bell has done beautiful work in presenting those complexities as believable, legitimate psychological constructs that defy easy deciphering, which is no mean feat for an historical novelist so far removed from his subject by time and culture.

Toussaint isn't the only strong character in Master of the Crossroads, though. Bell presents a wide spectrum of beautifully realized characters--some historical, some fictional--which may reach its broadest span with Antoine Hébert (Toussaint's idealistic surgeon as well as his sometime secretary) and Riau (a black captain in Toussaint's army and a vodou practitioner). Riau's voice was probably the most difficult for Bell to capture, since he's so remote to Western readers (and writers), and Bell's success with him is indicative of what may be his greatest accomplishment in a remarkably accomplished novel: primarily through well-rounded characters (a novelist's best weapon), he suggests the multifaceted complexities of a distant culture whose political, social and racial realities were as diverse as they are now remote.

Of course, while Master of the Crossroads ends in 1802 with Toussaint's power consolidated, the ideals of the revolution were not long realized. But Bell suggests, most brightly, that through it all, a few characters manage to turn the hellish experiences around them into a catharsis of sorts, to see it as an inner reckoning that forces them to redress their own past wrongs and realize the misguidedness of their vengeful natures. Without a doubt, Master of the Crossroads, like All Souls' Rising, has its fair share of shocking violence; indeed, it is something at which Bell seems especially talented. But for all the violence, the effect is not stultifying. While some scenes are merely harshly brutal (like the one in which a particularly unpleasant character is eviscerated by a sword shoved through his buttocks to his throat), others are mesmerizingly frightening because they merely shimmer with the potential for violence, as when a procession of blacks appears from the forest to reclaim the remains of a murdered slave:


As Maillart reached for his gourd of rum, he heard a drum beat slowly, four deep, throbbing beats. Then the hush resumed. From the trees came a procession of men and women, who moved toward the shed with rhythmic, swaying steps. It seemed that Guiaou was among them, or at least the captain recognized his shirt, but Guiaou had a different gait, a different manner, as if he'd been transfigured. When the singing began, that deep-throated voice made of many joined together, the fine hairs stood to attention on Maillart's forearms and the back of his neck. Drawing near the shed, the procession broke up into those bewildering spiral patterns that so often terrified the captain in ambush situations, yet now the movement was graceful, delicate and gentle, like ink diffusing into water.


After the bones are retrieved, the plantation owner throws rum onto the shed's walls and sets it on fire, and as Bell writes, "There could not have been enough rum to justify the effect, but the whole shed went up all at once like fire from a volcano." This is indeed splendid writing that nicely demonstrates the advantages a strong novelist can have over the historian, but it isn't the most electric scene in the novel, I think. The scene in which Bell presents a duel between Doctor Hébert and his lover's mesmeric kidnapper is truly a transcendent accomplishment, and its lingering visual and mystical resonance is shockingly powerful.

While Master of the Crossroads can be read alone, Bell's intentions are so clearly epic--combined, the first two volumes run to over twelve hundred pages--that the trilogy begs our close and complete attention. These are stunningly good, dense novels of lasting importance, and as far as I can see, they achieve everything they set out to accomplish.

Editor's note: Readers looking for other historical novels reviewed in WAG's pages might consider Thomas Mallon's Two Moons (click here for our review), David Ball's Empires of Sand (click here for our review), and David L. Robbins's The War of the Rats (click here for our review) and The End of War (click here for our review). Among nonfiction history, Alexander McKee's Wreck of the Medusa (click here for our review) might be particularly attractive to readers interested in early 19th century French history.


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