Book Review: Brother, I'm Dying

It's the rare family memoir--and this extraordinary new one by Edwidge Danticat is one of them--that transcends the individual lives of its characters and becomes a testament to the mystery of relatedness.

When an opportunity to escape from Haiti to the U.S. presents itself to the author's parents, they leave Edwidge and her brother with Uncle Joseph and Tante Denise, who are always ready to take in another parentless child into their ever-growing brood. This becomes the children's second family, until the confusing time comes to re-join their real parents. Hence Danticat is lucky enough to be raised by two wonderful fathers, one a 25-year gypsy cab driver in New York, the other a preacher with a houseful of adopted kids in dangerous, gang-and-revolution-torn Bel Air.

At its core, this book is about family love that transcends blood and what people will do for the simple pleasure of living with their own. The two brothers hoard every brief moment of togetherness that's given to them, and they don't get much, with an ocean between them. So it isn't fond memories that hold them together; it's something deeper and stronger.

Uncle Joseph is the heart of the book. He's got something to say about everything until he has to have a tracheotomy and loses the power of speech. Not even that can silence him though. Soon a voice box held to Uncle Joseph's neck provides a robotic imitation of a voice. He's a no-holds-barred loving man who risks his life again and again to protect his family and parishioners in wartorn Haiti.

Danticat's memoir records a climactic moment in her family history, when the cab driver with his body-wracking cough lies dying in the hospital, the preacher enters the hell of U.S. Immigration, and Edwidge has just discovered that, somewhat ahead of plan, she is pregnant.

Told in spare, understated prose, Brother, I'm Dying is a loving chunk of interrelated family lives that slowly evolves into a survival story. The Danticats are thrust through a gauntlet of revolutionary terrors before the story's final stretch when it becomes a harrowing immigration horror story. Throughout, Danticat keeps it cool and in control, an emotional rollercoaster ride told with the wisdom of acceptance and everyday simplicity.--Nick DiMartino

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