History is best told by way of a good story. Isabel Allende provides a whale of a one in her latest historical fiction, "Island Beneath the Sea."
The novel follows the life of Zarita, a slave known as Tete who is the daughter of an African mother and the white sailor who sold her into bondage.
The fictional events take place against very real backdrops -- a civil war and slave revolt in Haiti; revolution, terror and the rise of Napoleon in France; and the Jeffersonian purchase of Louisiana that made New Orleans part of the United States -- but the history never gets in the way of the gripping story.
In just over 450 pages, Allende tracts the 40 years of Tete's life from her birth in 18th-century Saint-Domingue, later known as Haiti, to New Orleans, where she becomes a free woman.
In Saint-Domingue, there are the grand blancs (the rich French plantation owners), petits blancs (the white merchant class), affranchis (free people of color) and slaves (overwhelmingly black Africans), who represent the carefully calibrated -- and explosively precarious -- racial hierarchy of that island nation, where the cruelest form of slavery has been practiced.
Toulouse Valmorain, the grand blanc who ends up owning Tete, rapes her and fathers two of her children, but he is not the worse of his ilk in a land where most slaves were worked to death and cruelly tortured.
At 9, Tete comes to take care of Valmorain's mad Cuban wife who is enslaved by her own demons and ends up becoming a mother to their son as well as her own mixed daughter by Valmorain. Valmorain gives away the other child he has fathered with Tete -- a son.
On the plantation Tete encounters a black healer, a white physician with a hidden mulatto family, a cruel overseer who is a free mulatto, and a kitchen slave who becomes Tete's lover and a freedom fighter. In New Orleans, she lives with a courtesan of mixed blood and her black maid, who train Tete's daughter to become a kept woman.
Tete works for a Catholic priest who fights for her freedom and ends up with a black majordomo from Saint-Domingue who had bought his freedom before fleeing to Louisiana. Allende juggles the dazzling characters skillfully.
The history isn't stale either. Although the action of "Island Beneath the Sea" takes place more than 200 years ago, the novel is eerily timely. The story's themes of national identity (and racial confusion) set against a background of family loyalties (and class betrayals) refer to another era, but they find echoes in today's headlines.
So do the descriptions of piled up bodies and smoking ruins in Port-au-Prince, although in the 18th century the perpetuator of such vicious devastation was man and not an act of nature.
Telling the story in the third person, with chapters written in the lyrical voice of Zarita interspersed throughout like a Greek chorus summing up the action, Allende deftly intersects the lives of her characters without too much strain of credulity. Only in the last pages does her carefully erected artifice crumble as she strains too hard to resolve her characters' lives.
Meanwhile, though, her engaging story has taught us a lot of history we won't soon forget.
Margo Hammond is co-founder of the blog The Book Babes.