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“The Wall of Fire Rising”: An Intimate Look at Hope

March 8, 2011

As I read Edwidge Danticat’s Krik? Krak! — and look forward to talking with her during this weekend’s UUSC Get-Together with her — my favorite story in the collection is “The Wall of Fire Rising.” The story is elemental, a haunting tale of a father’s shame, a mother’s love, and child’s innocent belief, all centered around the impossibly hopeful subject of a classroom play about a hero of Haitian independence and a hot air balloon.  

At the start of the story we learn that the son Little Guy has been selected to star in his school play about Boukman, the slave revolutionary. Excitedly, he practices his lines for his mother and father, who listen with faces wet from tears of pride. 

Danticat so expertly paints the realities of the young family’s life, indeed of nearly every Haitian life: perpetual unemployment, starvation, crushing poverty. Yet in the character of Lili, the mother, there is hope and a parent’s eternal desire to achieve a better life for her son through education. Even the name of the child represents the father’s hope that the life of his child will better than his, that there is always generational improvement. Lili is proud of her husband; “a man is judged by his deeds,” she tells him. “The boy never goes to bed hungry”. 

But Guy is unconvinced. He is frustrated with his inability to give his family security and ashamed of the menial work he does. While Guy loves his family, they only serve to remind him of him of his own failure. In fact, he sees a cycle of despair and remembers his own father as a low-income struggling man all his life. “I remember him as a man I would never want to be,” he tells Lili.  

In the hot air balloon owned by the rich son of the sugar refinery, Guy sees freedom. “Can’t you see yourself up there? Up in the clouds somewhere like some kind of bird?” he asks Lili. For him, the drudgery of life is suspended momentarily by the miracle of flight and escape. 

What Guy decides to do next will leave Lili and Little Guy forever changed. Yet, with the constant enslavement of poverty and no hope of relief (and to the encouraging shouts below of “Go beautiful, go!”), Guy chooses, perhaps for the first time in his life, a kind of freedom. 

Danticat’s thoroughly engrossing stories represent the lives of many of UUSC’s partners in Haiti. Through them, we can begin to understand the difficulties they face — and moreover, the heroic lives they lead, forever hopeful of achieving freedom.

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