Sunday, October 28, 2012

Review of "The Big Truck That Went By - How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster" by Jonathan M. Katz

Jonathan M. Katz makes a major contribution to the growing library of works describing Haiti after the devastating earthquake of 2010.  The author, the only American journalist permanently assigned to Haiti when the earthquake hit, tells the story from the vantage point of a participant observer.  The house where he lived in Petionville was destroyed, and he barely escaped with his friend Even.  So Katz tells his own tale as well as the tales of those he knew and came to know over the next year.

It strikes me that in telling this story, the author must have found it both painful and therapeutic to recall the personal and national losses that accumulated once the earth stopped moving.  Having lived in Haiti myself in the 1970's, and having returned three times since the earthquake, I found Katz's descriptions and conclusions accurate, fair and - as is almost always the case when Haiti is the topic of conversation - disappointing and discouraging.  Haiti seems to bring out the worst of the "law of unintended consequence" on the part of those from outside of Haiti who promise to help.  The help is either not forthcoming, or tied up in so much red tape that the aid seldom makes it to the level of the Haiti people so in need of opportunity to make a safe and sustainable life for themselves.

With journalistic precision and deep personal insight, the author chronicles the string of failures to respond to the opportunities after the earthquake to "build Haiti back better."  Political intrigue, cover-ups by the UN and other NGO's when the cholera epidemic killed thousands of Haitians, the circus that surrounded the election to replace President Preval are all themes that weave themselves through this book.  I have seen the conditions in Petionville and the settler camps, and the descriptions and explanations that Katz offers are right on the money.  Thankfully, he has chosen to abandon any attempt at journalistic objectivity.  His love for Haiti and its people, and his frustration over their chronic condition, comes through loud and clear in this memoir.  As he describes his own struggle with PTSD, his decision to extend his stay in Haiti for a year after the earthquake seems even more noble.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, Katz met a young woman with whom he now lives in Brooklyn.  In describing a phone conversation with Claire, he captures the essence of what it means to love Haiti:

"But I knew, in the first words she spoke when I picked up the phone, that no matter the particulars, there was something inside both of us that had just come together, deep and true.  They were words you can truly understand only when you realize that to love Haiti is to come away bruised; that loving Haiti is to love something that may not even love itself, but that it's still love after all."  (Page 196)

Truer words were never spoken.

If you love Haiti - or would like to have a better understanding of this special and enigmatic place, then this book is for you.  I hope to meet Mr. Katz in Haiti someday to compare stories.



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