Historical romance doubles as origin story shadowed by the legacy of U.S. imperialism in the first installment of Theodore-Pharel’s (Momma, How Beautiful You Are, 2015, etc.) trilogy.
During the U.S. occupation of Haiti, Pastor Colvin Donner, an American tracker, stalks Poupette Moises, a member of the Caco resistance who he hopes will lead him to the Caco leader, Champagne Pepla. When he captures her, Colvin rapes and mutilates Poupette. A decade and a half passes before the story resumes. We now follow Poupette’s 15-year-old daughter, Moiselle, who is heartbroken and restless when she meets Robert Donner, a young traveling preacher and Colvin’s son. The two begin a romance threatened both by the elder Donner’s plan to marry Robert to Sister Lily Ann White, a fellow missionary, and the history between their families, which neither initially understands. Robert says he loves Moiselle, but early on, he wonders whether she is “a demon trying to enter his heart and lead him astray from his ministerial calling.” That Lagrace Donner Moises, the Grace Donner of this trilogy’s title, isn’t born until halfway through the novel reveals the importance placed on the history, known and unknown, of Theodore-Pharel’s characters. To understand Grace, the reader must understand her grandparents’ war. This haunting becomes literal with a length of rope. Used by Colvin in capturing Pepla, it reappears at crises throughout the novel surrounded by an air of ominous power. The novel considers many perspectives; the standout passages track Moiselle’s thoughts as she realizes that Robert won’t be her ticket out of her hometown. She finds herself explaining to him, “when you live in a small town, you have no rights. You are part of the story.” Spanning half a century, the novel seems rushed at times. (The deep bench of interesting secondary characters, including the aunt and uncle who take in pregnant Moiselle, warrants more time on the page.) Overwhelmingly, though, Theodore-Pharel pinpoints the narrative moments essential to the intertwining conspiracies and the characters’ particular psyches, layered even in the case of the most despicable among them.
An examination of the reverberation of wrongs within a precisely drawn, morally complex family.