“Everywhere in the world, the roving Yankee takes his pleasure and his profit, indifferent to all risks. He drops anchor at random.”- Giaccomo Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly,” as quoted on the liner notes to Weezer’s “Pinkerton.”
The tale of the invading Yank who impregnates the naïve native only to abandon her to the painful consequences goes back much farther than Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.” It is, after all, a stark symbol of colonialism’s callous penetration made palatable by the operatic melodrama. It’s a story that can inspire both Boublil and Schomberg’s “Miss Saigon” and Weezer’s “Pinkerton”; it lends itself to revisiting and re-setting.
M. Ketsia Theodore-Pharel’s “Rope” takes the basic “Butterfly” concept and sets it not in the East, but much closer to American shores: Haiti in the 20s and 40s. It’s useful to know that in 1915, U.S. Marines occupied Port-Au-Prince in efforts to a) punish the popular lynching of U.S.-friendly dictator Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, b) protect the interests of the Haitian-American Sugar Company and c) keep the dreaded Imperial Huns’ supposed claws out of the Caribbean, roughly in that order.
Colvin Donner is one of those Marines, a rapist and an expert tracker whose grand achievement is to take care of the hanging of Chango Champagne Pepla, a legendary rebel “caco.” The hanging takes place with the novel’s titular rope, one that holds a curse which changes Colvin’s life, and leads him, curiously enough, to evangelism. Cut to 1945: that rope ties together the lives of Colvin; his son, Robert Donner; and the “Butterfly” of this tale, Moiselle, a girl who, like many before and after, believes that marrying a foreigner is the only ticket out of a limited Third World life.
Haiti’s society of the period is envisioned vibrantly: this is a locale where seemingly strict racial and class lines are frequently crossed; so are the lines between the mundane and the magical. The action scenes in “Rope” are as brutal as the romance between Donner and Moiselle is tender, (but is it a plot spoiler to mention it is doomed?) One only wishes Theodore-Pharel had provided more context to fill in the historical background; a certain familiarity with Haiti is assumed, and those who don’t necessarily know a lot about that country’s history beyond Toussaint Louverture and Papa Doc Duvalier (guilty!) might feel compelled to seek additional info elsewhere. It doesn’t matter: abundant plot twists (and knots) will entertain the rest, as the novel unfolds to its sequel-setting conclusion. “Rope” appears to be the first in a purported “Grace Donner” trilogy.