Haiti seems a tormented country.
Political unrest, downright chicanery throughout its history in both public and private sectors. Then, three years ago, a devastating earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands, followed by a deadly cholera epidemic that ravaged an already ravaged populace.
Wilentz and Katz, both with strong ties and apparent affection for Haitians, write similar books from different perspectives about a country they lived in and wrote about prior to these works.
Wilentz, who previously authored “The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier,” returns to Haiti in “Farewell” to chronicle life since the earthquake. As the subtitle reveals, “Farewell” reads like a letter about what she found.
Katz, on the other hand, writes in reportorial fashion, most appropriate since he lived in and covered Haiti for the Associated Press for more than three years. He was there when the earthquake struck and opens “Truck” by relating his narrow escape from the collapsing house where he lived and worked.
Both detail the dismal conditions Haitians encounter daily: hunger, poverty, illness, tragedy. Wilentz does it through the eyes of others, like the street kid who befriended her, the American infectious disease doctor she rightly admires, the American trauma doctor seemingly there as much for the glory as the goodwill. Hers is an introspective work. Through her contacts she examines, then explains and, finally, analyzes. Her conclusion: Most of those who try to help “don’t understand Haiti, don’t acknowledge its strengths (and don’t get to know them), don’t get its culture or are philosophically opposed to what they assume its culture is, and don’t know its history in any meaningful way.”
That history, of course, is rooted in slavery, which Haitians successfully revolted from in 1804 when they overthrew French rule and established the first black-led republic. But as both “Farewell” and “Truck” report, reparations due the French crippled Haiti’s efforts to mature as a nation. In the 20th century, the United States stepped in, maintaining a military presence, tolerating dictatorships and even helping determine who should lead the nation.
Katz writes more subjectively. He followed as a reporter the efforts to aid the earthquake-stricken country. And he didn’t like what he saw. Tarps that still serve as shelter for thousands forced into makeshift camps. Disaster relief that poured into Haiti but failed to alleviate the travails of the destitute. Goodwill ambassadors like Bill Clinton and Sean Penn, especially Penn, who struggled against the inbred graft in trying to help. Both Wilentz and Katz single out Penn for diving into the malaise with money and energy to build a survivor camp for thousands with decent shelters, food and clean water. He didn’t just touch down and leave, they report, he stayed and used his star power to get things done.
Katz was psychologically affected by his experience, and writes openly about his visit to a therapist for post-traumatic stress. He also writes angrily about how officials ignored his AP stories about where and how the cholera outbreak started. Eventually they came to recognize the source was a Nepalese aid camp where human waste was dumped into a waterway.
He writes this about post-quake relief efforts:
“Having sought above all to prevent riots, ensure stability, and prevent disease, the responders helped spark the first, undermine the second, and by all evidence caused the third.”
Haiti today has been trying to market itself as an island treasure for tourists. “Farewell,” which gets its title from the label for Haiti’s everyman, and “Truck,” which gets its title from the goods-laden vehicle that sped past goods-needing quake survivors, won’t help.
Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti
By Amy Wilentz; Simon and Shuster, 329 pages, $27
The Big Truck that Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster
By Jonathan M. Katz; Palgrave Macmillan, 306 pages, $26
Lee Coppola is the retired dean of St. Bonaventure University’s Jandoli Journalism School.