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Originally published Sunday, April 15, 2012 at 5:31 AM

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Book review

'A Wedding in Haiti': a joyous occasion in a troubled land

Julia Alvarez' "A Wedding in Haiti" is a touching, uplifting memoir of the happiness and hardship of living and loving in star-crossed Haiti. Alvarez discusses her book at 7 p.m. Friday at the main branch of the Seattle Public Library.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Julia Alvarez

The author will show photos and read from "A Wedding in Haiti" at 7 p.m. Friday at the Central branch of the Seattle Public Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle; free (206-386-4636 or www.spl.org).
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'A Wedding in Haiti'

by Julia Alvarez

Algonquin Books, 304 pp., $19.95

Julia Alvarez's "A Wedding in Haiti" is a touching, funny, eye-opening and uplifting memoir, and a rare intimate look at our poorest neighbor in the Western Hemisphere.

The titular wedding is that of Piti, a young Haitian who endeared himself to the author ("How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents," "In the Time of the Butterflies") while working on the organic coffee farm Alvarez operates with her husband, Bill, in her native Dominican Republic. She calls that unexpected life detour "the coffee-farm vaudeville act."

Piti asks Alvarez and Bill to be the godparents at his wedding to Eseline, mother of his 4-month-old daughter, Ludy. It's August 2009, and it will be a nine-hour road trip from the Dominican Republic to northwest Haiti with Bill at the wheel of his truck.

They will return with the very carsick Eseline and beautiful little Ludy, whom Alvarez first meets in a dress of "robin's-egg blue, which seems a favorite shade in this area of rural Haiti: the color of many doors and shutters, of shirts and skirts and blouses, and most pervasively of the clear, endless summer sky above ... "

It's a journey filled with crowded border crossings where corruption rules; bumpy, unpaved roads that turn Alvarez into a "gasp-ometer, gasping every time we drop into a pothole"; moments of tension and fear where race, class and language seem insurmountable; and transcendent interludes where these barriers don't factor at all.

In a heart-stopping, heartbreaking anecdote, a young man and two young women approach Alvarez, seeming just curious and friendly at first, but increasingly demanding, desperate: "I am hungry, give me something." Moments of grace are much more frequent, such as friendly exchanges with mango vendors; a spontaneous dance party with Piti on guitar; and the generosity of Piti's relatives, who offer their humble home to the weary travelers and sleep on mats spread out under trees.

Having fallen in love with Haiti and its people, it's not surprising that Alvarez chooses to return in one of its hours of greatest need, making the round-trip journey again almost a year after the wedding — and six months after the devastating earthquake of January 2010. How could she not "re-enter the story as a way of being with Haiti after the cameras departed ... "?

Piti and Eseline's families, far from the earthquake's epicenter, are, blessedly, OK. But a detour to Port-au-Prince reveals piles of rubble and tent cities, and the stories of survivors, such as the consulate worker who experienced the earthquake near the end of her workday and desperately made her way home for two hours through the wreckage to her husband and 6-month-old baby.

Alvarez also finds that life goes on, with brightly uniformed schoolgirls pouring out of a school and, surreally, unscathed gated communities, white-linen restaurants and busy patisserie shops: "There is money to be made among the ruins."

"Wedding," filled with photos from Alvarez's journeys, is a fine companion to Isabel Allende's historical novel about Haiti, "Island Beneath the Sea," and the work of Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat.

Alvarez dedicates "Wedding" to her beloved parents, struggling with Alzheimer's and whose stories she also shares in the memoir, and to "all the Ludys."

Agnes Torres Al-Shibibi is a desk editor at The Seattle Times

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