Brother, I'm Dying

By Edwidge Danticat

Knopf. 272 pp. $23.95

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In a just world, every gentle and heroic person, no matter how humble his or her life, would be blessed with a writer in the family.

A writer to dignify those whom the worst among us cruelly hurt. A writer to remember the thoughtful gestures, the routine kindnesses, the unaccountable spirit, that mark the best among us: modest people full of moral courage and decency.

Joseph Dantica, an 81-year-old Haitian pastor who unfairly died in U.S. custody after seeking temporary asylum, and Andre Miracin Danticat, a tailor by trade who drove a gypsy cab in Brooklyn for decades to support his family, had Edwidge Danticat.

So there is some justice in this world - though not enough.

Perhaps you've heard about, but not read Danticat's acclaimed fictions drawn from her native Haiti, among them Breath, Eyes, Memory; The Dew Breaker; and Krik? Krak! Perhaps you've heard that many sophisticated sorts today savage the memoir as a debased genre, too often produced by con artists and 11-year-old former contestants on game shows.

Brother, I'm Dying will set you straight on both matters. Taut, autobiographical and admirably reported, the book recalls Danticat's fiction without mapping it, and should send you to her earlier work. At the same time, Brother, I'm Dying reminds us of truth's elemental force when unsentimentally and faithfully delivered.

As a child in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Edwidge Danticat watched as her father (when she was 4), and then her mother left the country to establish a better life for the family in Brooklyn. Until she joined her parents at the age of 12, Edwidge and her brother Bob grew up with her Aunt Denise and Uncle Joseph, the family patriarch. A Baptist pastor 12 years her father's senior, Dantica built a church and school over decades and stayed committed to his congregation despite Haiti's descent into dictatorship and brutality under the notorious Duvaliers and their gunmen, the Tonton Macoutes.

Brother, I'm Dying ranges back from the fateful day in 2004 when Danticat learned both that she was pregnant with her first child and that her father faced a diagnosis of terminal pulmonary fibrosis. We read of her childhood moments listening to the monthly three-paragraph letters from her father, whose real feelings were "too big for any piece of paper." We hear the folk tales of her elderly Grandmother Melina, and of Edwidge's speaking for Joseph, who carried on his duties despite cancer of the throat and a tracheotomy that left him voiceless and stared at. We're taken through Joseph's own early life, his years witnessing Haiti descend into serial tyranny, then near-anarchy.

Finally, we follow the enraging last chapter of Joseph's life. His tortured neighborhood of Bel-Air, as far from the wealthy Los Angeles enclave of that name as one could imagine, becomes subject to battles between U.N. "peacekeepers" and Haitian riot police on one side, and street gangs loyal to ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Shortly before Joseph is to depart on a one-month visa for an already planned trip to New York to see his dying brother, local thugs accuse him of helping police to fire on them.

As thanks for his lifetime of service to the poor of Bel-Air, they burn down his church, ransack his house and threaten him with death if he doesn't pay for the funerals of their fallen gunmen.

Joseph, 81, a frail widower after a 55-year marriage, heads to Miami on his visa. He finds himself plummeted into a nightmare when he sensibly asks for "temporary asylum" based on the conditions he's fled. A series of small-minded and incompetent U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials - not one of whom manages to act humanely - intern him at Florida's Krome Detention Center. He's judged to be "faking" when he vomits and faints during what the government calls a "credible-fear" interview to establish grounds for asylum. Shackled, humiliated, his medication taken away, Joseph is transported to Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital, where he dies.

In recounting this horrific ending, followed soon afterward by her father's death and the burial of the brothers together in Queens, Danticat maintains an even tone, a "just-the-facts" stance that only intensifies the reader's own experience of her family's tragedy, and increases one's respect for her literary labor of love.

If Brother, I'm Dying, does not break your heart, you don't have one. "I am writing this," Danticat explains simply, "because they can't."

It is not often that, a day after closing a book, one writes a review interrupted by tears, by lumps in the throat. Such are the aftershocks of the story Danticat tells.

Contact book critic Carlin Romano at 215-854-5615 or cromano@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/carlinromano.