Wedding invitations are meant to be joyous proclamations, but Julia Alvarez received one in 2009 that she had hoped would never come. A casual promise to attend a young employee's wedding was suddenly, firmly, expected to be fulfilled, but doing so required a trip to Haiti, a place the Dominican-American writer never intended to explore.
"A Wedding in Haiti" is Alvarez's account of how she reluctantly visited the other side of her parents' homeland and found family connections in spite of language and circumstance.
The Dominican Republic shares the Caribbean island of Hispanola with Haiti, but Alvarez, known for exploring her heritage in her writing, including her novel "How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents," never crossed the border until Piti's wedding.
Alvarez met the Haitian teen called "Piti" for his small size in 2001. He had come to the Dominican Republic to find work, and over the years he became like a son to Alvarez and her husband, who run a coffee farm in the country's mountains.
In 2009, he invited Alvarez and her husband to his wedding in northwestern Haiti. The next year, Alvarez drove Piti and his wife back to their families to check in after a catastrophic earthquake leveled much of Haiti's capital, throwing the small, vulnerable country into greater uncertainty.
"A Wedding in Haiti" is an open-eyed view of Haiti before and after the earthquake. Alvarez has no agenda for her visits, other than attending to people she considers family; she's not a missionary, she's not a journalist, she's not there to save anyone or rail against foreign policy. Her small traveling group packed in her husband's pickup truck lacks a security detail. "We're just here to look," Alvarez tells someone who inquires about what a white couple is doing in a Haitian bakery on their own.
Though Alvarez is naive about what it takes to survive in Haiti and navigate its border with the Dominican Republic, her lack of cynicism leaves her open to the small but not insignificant victories of ordinary life: the sweetness of fruit that seemed too scrawny in the basket, the tidy order of a dirt yard freshly swept in the morning, the box of spaghetti that had to be delivered by car, not on foot, because a homecoming is a kind of ceremony.
"A Wedding in Haiti" is Alvarez's view into the rural Haitian family life that never makes the news.