One-Minute Book Reviews

January 2, 2008

National Book Awards Reality Check: Finalist Edwidge Danticat’s ‘Brother, I’m Dying’

The latest in an occasional series on winners of or finalists for major book awards and whether they deserved their honors

Title: Brother, I’m Dying. By Edwidge Danticat. Knopf, 273 pp., $23.95.

What it is: The author’s memoir of her uncle, Joseph Dantica, who died a nightmarish death while in custody of U.S. immigration officials in Miami in 2004. Danticat lived with her uncle for eight years while growing up in Haiti and interweaves his story and hers.

A finalist for … the 2007 National Book Award for nonfiction, won by Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA

Was this one of those literary honors that make you wonder if the judges were all on Class B controlled substances? No.

Worthy of being a finalist for a major award? A qualified yes. Danticat’s story of the brutal and medically negligent treatment of her 81-year-old uncle may be the best account in print of what can happen to an innocent visitor wrongly detained by U.S. immigration authorities. But that story unfolds in the last 100 pages, and the writing precedes it is much less interesting and more pedestrian.


Best line: “When you hear that someone has died whom you’ve not seen in a long time, it’s not too difficult to pretend that it hasn’t really happened, that the person is continuing to live just as she has before, in your absence, out of your sight.”


Worst line: No. 1: “The colorfully painted lottery stands were still selling hundreds of tickets to hopeful dreamers.” As opposed to dreamers who weren’t hopeful? (The time frame of that line is confusing, too: hundreds of tickets a day? a week?] No. 2:My father was dying and I was pregnant. Both struck me as impossibly unreal.” How does “impossibly unreal” differ from just “impossible” or “unreal”? That “impossibly” is just padding. No. 3: The stilted, “In mid-October, my husband and I learned our child’s gender from our midwife …” Who speaks that way? Wouldn’t you just say, “We learned our baby’s sex” or “We learned that we were having a girl”? Lines like these three – and Brother, I’m Dying has many – should give pause to any awards judge, no matter how worthy the subject of a book.


Published: September 2007


Furthermore: Danticat also wrote Breath, Eyes, Memory and The Farming of Bones, an American Book Award winner. She lives in Miami.


© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


  1. Danticat is one of my favorite authors. Things like the redundancy of ‘impossibly unreal’ doesn’t bother me in the least, and doesn’t detract from the reading experience (for me). The emotions she evokes with her words flows over the reader, giving the minor technical issues very little importance, IMO. BUT.. I’m a reader, not a writer or an awards judge. I’m not looking for flaws, just enjoying the experience.

    Comment by lisamm — January 6, 2008 @ 1:02 pm | Reply

  2. More people might agree with you than with me on things like “impossibly unreal,” especially because Danticat tells such an important story in writing about her uncle’s detention. A lot of media stories have described what can happen to a visitor held by the immigration officials, but this is the first book that really made me see how bad it can get. It’s chilling. Thanks so much for your comment.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — January 6, 2008 @ 7:26 pm | Reply

  3. I just wanted to drop a comment here. I think there is a sense of things being unreal, that they are not actually happening, and also of being impossibly unread, that they not only are not happening but are not possibly happening. I think that we all felt this on 9/11 when our worldviews were suddenly shattered and our feeling of innocent untouchability was shown for a wisp of cloud blown across the sky. As far as the “In mid-October, my husband and I learned our child’s gender from our midwife …” far from stilted, I found it poetic and rhythmic, this sense of wonder and comfort that contrasted the bleakness of death. I’ve heard Ms. Danticat speak. She speaks with the poetic rhythms of Kreyol and French in beautifully modulated and eloquent language, it is exactly the words she would use in speaking.

    Comment by mmillott — October 3, 2008 @ 3:41 am | Reply

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