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Island Beneath the Sea    by Isabel Allende order for
Island Beneath the Sea
by Isabel Allende
Order:  USA  Can
Harper, 2010 (2010)
Hardcover, CD, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

In Island Beneath the Sea, Isabel Allende tells the bitter-sweet story of Zarité (known as Tété), the daughter of an African mother and the white sailor who raped her. As a child in 1770s Saint-Domingue - 'which would become the richest colony in the world', generating a third of France's wealth from the labor of slaves - Tété is purchased by Toulouse Valmorain's mistress (much admired free cocotte Violette Boisier), to care for his mentally frail wife, Dona Eugenia on his sugar plantation of Saint Lazare.

Music - and the drums - have given Zarité the strength to survive and thrive through difficult times. Looking back on her life, she tells us that 'Music is a wind that blows away the years, memories, and fear, that crouching animal I carry inside me ... Rhythm is born on the island beneath the sea; it shakes the earth, it cuts through me like a lightning bolt and rises toward the sky, carrying with it my sorrows so that Papa Bondye can chew them, swallow them, and leave me clean and happy.' Honoré, the slave who cared for her as a child, told her to 'Dance, dance, Zarité, the slave who dances is free ... while he is dancing'.

When Tété gives her master a son, Jean-Martin is taken from her and raised (unbeknownst to Tété) by Violette, who has married Captain Etienne Relais but is unable to bear children. Tété is a mother to Dona Eugenia's son Maurice, who becomes inseparable from the daughter she subsequently bears her master, Rosette. Tété and a new young slave, Gambo, are lovers until he runs away to join the free Maroons in the mountains. When the revolution begins, Gambo returns to help Tété, who insists on saving Maurice and his father. In return, she extracts from Valmorain a paper giving herself and Rosette their freedom - but many years pass before her master honors it.

Though Tété had hoped for freedom and a reunion with Gambo, Valmorain takes them to New Orleans, Louisiana, where Violette has relocated before them. There, the once liberal Valmorain buys another plantation and marries (Eugenia having died in Saint-Domingue) into a well regarded Creole family. Maurice is banished to a boarding school in Boston, after vigorously defending Tété from his new stepmother. He keeps in contact with Rosette and becomes determined to one day emancipate all his father's slaves. And Tété finally meets Jean-Martin as an adult.

Allende takes her characters through many big events - including the revolution that formed Haiti and Bonaparte's sale of Louisiana to the Americans - as well as the 'sorrows and joys' that add up in Tété's long life. She keeps 'Dancing and dancing' and tells us 'That is how it is.' I highly recommend Island Beneath the Sea to you as a remarkable historical read that makes clear how much slavery brutalizes the slaver as well as the enslaved.

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