“A blanc [white person] is coming to visit today. He’s your papa, but when you see him don’t call him papa. Say ‘Bonjour, monsieur’ and disappear. If the neighbors ask you who he was, you tell them you don’t know. He is such a good man, we have to protect his reputation. That’s what happens when men of good character have children with dogs,” said Florence to me in Creole when I was about seven or eight years old.
So begins Jean-Robert Cadet’s autobiography, Restavec. Mr. Cadet’s story starts with seeing his father for the first time. His mother died when he was around one year old, and his father brought him to be cared for by a Haitian lady named Florence. Florence is reimbursed financially for taking care of Jean-Robert, whom she nicknames, “Bobby.” Instead of treating Bobby like a part of her family, she turns him into the family restavec. In Haiti, child slavery is accepted under the guise of the French term, “Restavec,” which means, “Staying with.” Children from poor families are taken in by wealthy families, and become their servants. Restavecs are poorly treated. Their lives consist of unremitting labor, all forms of abuse, lack of food and other comforts, and are often denied an education.
We follow Mr. Cadet’s journey as a child slave in Haiti, to his life in the United States of America. While in Haiti, he is severely mistreated by Florence and her family, and is shunned by his father. When Florence and her family immigrate to America, Jean-Robert travels from family to family until his father sends him to America to live with Florence; rather than taking him into his own home. Life for Jean-Robert in America is slightly better. Florence does not force him into such back-breaking labor, and he is allowed to attend public school. However, he is not accepted as a member of their family, and continues to feel unloved and worthless.
Mr. Cadet graduates from high school, joins the army, attends college, and makes a life for himself in his new country. He no longer has contact with Florence or any of her family, but he is constantly haunted by his life with them in Haiti. Mr. Cadet shares his feelings of being a Haitian man in prejudiced America, as well as his struggles with overcoming feelings of low self-worth.
I really enjoyed this book. I felt it was excellently written, and gave me a good idea of what life is like for Haitian children forced into slavery. I was impressed with Mr. Cadet’s determination to succeed. Despite the cruelty with which he was raised, he lived an honorable life and became a teacher to inspire the youth of America. This was also a difficult book to read, because of how poorly he and his fellow restavecs were treated. I found his experiences as a Haitian man in prejudiced America to be rather insightful. Being a white person, I need frequent reminders that life is and will be different for my non-white children.
I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the plight of Haitian children. (There are some sexually based incidents that pertain to the story. You can easily skim over them and not lose much of the story or continuity.)