“Caroline’s Wedding” begins with Grace, the narrator of the story and Caroline’s older sister, calling their mother to share some exciting news. She has just received her American citizenship. Grace’s mother, Hermine, is thrilled for her daughter, and instructs her to go right away and apply for a passport. That, according to Hermine, is “truly what’s American” (Danticat 156). Grace obeys her mother and goes to the post office to send in the passport application materials. She has to “trade in” her naturalization certificate for a passport application, and without her proof of citizenship she feels “like unclaimed property” (Danticat 156). Ever since Hermine was arrested in a sweatshop raid and placed in immigration jail for three days, Grace’s family has “always been very anxious about [their] papers” (Danticat 156).
Back at home, Grace hurries to show her mother the photocopy of her passport application. Hermine says they will celebrate with a pot of her heal-all bone soup. According to Hermine, this soup cures all type of ills. She hopes the soup will succeed in detaching Caroline from her Bahamian finance, Eric. For some reason, Hermine doesn’t approve of the match.
Just then, Caroline enters the kitchen. Caroline was born without her left forearm, possibly because the prison doctors gave Hermine a shot of a drug to help her sleep during her three-day incarceration. Seeing that her mother is serving bone soup again, Caroline whispers to Grace that she is getting tired of her mother’s constant meddling. Caroline makes a teasing remark to Hermine about the soup. Hermine says that Caroline thinks of herself as so American. At this Grace interjects and tells her sister she’s just become a citizen as well. Caroline is already a citizen because she was born on American soil, a fact Grace thinks her sister takes for granted.
Later that night, Grace and Hermine talk in Hermine’s bedroom. The discussion is about Caroline’s upcoming nuptials, and how much Hermine wishes her daughter would break off the engagement. She wants her daughters to marry nice Haitian men. Talking about marriage reminds Hermine of her own courtship with her now-deceased husband. She shares their story with Grace, and seems to realize for the first time that Caroline will indeed be getting married, whether she approves of the groom or not.
Grace goes back to the room she shares with Caroline to find that her sister is still awake. The sisters sit in the dark and play the free association game Hermine taught them, the same coded call-and-response game Josephine tests Jacqueline with in “Nineteen Thirty-Seven.” It is revealed that Hermine is from Ville Rose and was a part of the same secret women’s society that Josephine and Défilé were in. Before the girls fall asleep, their mother comes to tell them about a Mass being held at the local church for a dead refugee woman. Grace agrees to go, but Caroline does not.
The ceremony is not heavily attended. There are few other middle-aged women present, in addition to Hermine and Grace. Hermine wears a leather belt around her belly, similar to how old Haitian women wear rags around their torsos when grieving. The priest begins by reciting a list of 129 names, all of them Haitian refugees who died at sea that week. Once he finishes the list, he asks for a special prayer to be said for an unidentified young woman that gave birth on a refugee boat, and who later committed suicide because her baby didn’t survive. This woman, of course, is Célianne from “Children of the Sea.”
When Hermine and Grace get home, Caroline is still in bed. She asks Grace how Mass was as she continues to pack up her belongings. The packing process has been slow, because Caroline doesn’t want to traumatize her mother by moving out immediately. To Hermine’s chagrin, Caroline and Eric are not having a big formal wedding in a church, but rather a small civil ceremony. This, along with Eric not officially asking Hermine for permission to marry Caroline, along with a slew of other culture differences, is why Hermine is unhappy about Caroline’s wedding.
Changing the subject, Caroline tells Grace that she dreamed of their father last night. Their father died almost ten years ago from untreated prostate cancer, and for the first few months after his death the girls would dream of him nightly. In the dream they would chase after him but never reach him. They never told their mother about these dreams, because she is highly superstitious and reads a lot of symbolism into dreams, the dead, and mourning.
After sharing her dream Caroline pulls out an old photograph of their father. The girls look longingly at the photo. Though ten years have passed since their father’s death, they still miss him deeply. Caroline wishes he would send some kind of sign that he approves of her life, her choices, and her fiancé. Caught up in reminiscing, they begin to repeat their father’s favorite Haitian proverbs.
Next door, Mrs. Ruiz, the family’s Cuban neighbor, is hosting her large extended family for a celebration with blaring rumba music. Caroline and Grace observe the proceedings from a window. Caroline tells Grace that last month Mrs. Ruiz’s son was killed trying to hijack a plane in Havana so he could fly it to Miami. The beats of the rumba music remind Grace of their childhood fantasies. In one, Caroline’s missing limb would burst out of Hermine’s stomach and attach itself to Caroline’s stub. They would then go to Mrs. Ruiz’s house to celebrate. The girls were always very disappointed when this never happened.
That night, it’s Grace’s turn to dream of her father. First she dreams that he is at an 18th-century-style masked ball. She tries to run towards him but cannot move. He is standing in a crowd of masked women. Slowly, the women take off their masks, and one of them turns out to be Caroline. Grace wakes up with her face soaked in tears, distraught at the idea of her father and her sister leaving her behind. That morning, she begins writing down a list of her father’s crazy escapades and things she learned from him. One of these is a riddle. “Why,” Grace’s father asked, “is it that when you lose something, it is always in the very last place you look?” “Because,” Grace answered, “once you find it, you look no more” (Danticat 167). Another fond memory Grace has of her father is a joke about President for Life Papa Doc Duvalier. These stories and riddles were Grace and Caroline’s bedtime stories. As children they didn’t fully understand them, but now they are the girls’ “sole inheritance” (Danticat 168).
Caroline’s wedding is only a month away now. She buys her wedding dress from Goodwill, Hermine decides to wear a pink gown, and Grace will wear a green suit. One night they go over to Eric’s house for dinner. As they travel in the taxi, Grace tells Caroline that she wants to throw her a bridal shower. Caroline agrees and gives Grace her address book. It’s filled contacts from the school they teach ESL at. This is the same school where Eric and Caroline met. Eric works there as a janitor.
Dinner is a bit awkward. Eric tries his best, but Hermine isn’t charmed. He has a learning disability that makes his speech rather slow. Grace plays peacemaker and tells her mother to at least try to eat the food Eric prepared. When Hermine eats very little and just pushes her food around her plate, Grace tells her that she is forbidden to go home and cook later. Caroline goes back home with her sister and mother, but sneaks out when her mother falls asleep, taking a cab back to Eric’s. The next morning, Grace covers for her with their mother.
That night, Grace dreams of her father again. This time, he has a voice and calls Grace by her full name, ‘Gracina’. Constantly dreaming of her father makes Grace remember moments from their childhood. She remembers how Caroline was nicknamed her parent’s “New York child, the child who has never known Haiti,” while Grace was their “misery baby,” the offspring from the lean years of their lives (Danticat 175). She also recalls how they came to live in New York. Her father got a visa by entering into a fake marriage with a widow leaving Haiti for America. In exchange for some money, the woman took his last name. A few years after arriving stateside, Grace’s father divorced the widow and sent for Hermine and Grace.
Before long, the day of Caroline’s wedding shower arrives. Besides Grace and Hermine, only four of Caroline’s friends attend, along with Mrs. Ruiz. Caroline receives an array of household appliances and a traveling bag for her honeymoon as gifts. Mrs. Ruiz is jovial and lighthearted, promising to deliver Caroline’s first child when the time comes. Hermine calls her by her first name, Carmen, and promises to bring her some bone soup. Grace offers her condolences for Mrs. Ruiz’s son, to which Mrs. Ruiz responds, “Now why would you want to bring up a thing like that?” (Danticat 183.)
After the guests leave, Caroline packs away her gifts. As she and Grace prepare for bed, Hermine comes bearing one last gift. It’s a teddy for Caroline’s wedding night. A saleswoman at a department store helped Hermine pick it out. After Caroline goes to bed, Grace goes to her mother’s room for one of their chats. They discuss how Hermine and her husband always feared Caroline would settle for someone less than she deserved because of her missing forearm. That’s the real reason Hermine doesn’t approve of Eric: she thinks Caroline is afraid that no other man will come along.
The night before her wedding, Caroline seems distant. She barely replies to her mother’s nagging and acts like she’s in another world. At her mother’s prodding she tries on her wedding dress one more time, but wears it with a prosthetic arm. Hermine is confused and says that the arm doesn’t look very real. Caroline retorts that looking real isn’t the point. She has been feeling phantom limb pain, and her doctor believes the stress of the wedding may be the cause. Hermine says if that’s true, they should all be experiencing phantom pain.
The day of the wedding, Caroline wakes up looking drowsy and frazzled. She says she woke up feeling as if she doesn’t want to get married. Rather than capitalizing on the situation, Hermine comforts her daughter, saying she felt the same way on her wedding day. She and Grace give Caroline a rejuvenating bath, which makes her feel better. Everyone gets ready, with Hermine doing Caroline’s makeup and Grace snapping pictures. They pose outside of the courthouse before meeting Eric inside. Grace thinks they look like they’re going to a graduation ceremony.
Inside, Eric rushes over to give Caroline a kiss and ogle at her prosthetic arm. Caroline says it’s only for the day, but Eric says it suits her fine. Judge Perez, the officiator, is a friend of Eric’s. Besides him, the bride, the groom, Hermine, and Grace, no one else is present. Eric’s family all live in other states or Cuba. As the ceremony commences, Grace keeps her eyes glued to Caroline’s face and watches as her sister slowly begins to fade away. A new, married woman takes her place, and Grace feels as if Caroline is divorcing them for Eric.
The ceremony is over quickly. Grace says she wants to take the newlyweds out for lunch, and Eric replies that their flight to their honeymoon destination leaves at five in the afternoon. Caroline wants to take wedding photos at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. Hermine asks why they didn’t tell her they were leaving that same night. When they don’t answer, she takes her anger out on Grace.
In the end, everyone goes out to lunch at a Haitian restaurant. Hermine doesn’t speak, and Caroline doesn’t eat. Eric makes a toast, and at her mother’s prodding, Grace does too. They go take the wedding photos with a professional photographer, and then go back home to grab Caroline’s luggage. The newlyweds say goodbye before taking a taxi the airport. Caroline and Grace sob and Caroline promises to visit when they get back. Later that night, a deliveryman drops off red roses for Hermine. They are from Caroline.
Grace’s passport comes in the mail the next day. For the first time, she feels truly secure living in America. She compares it living in a war zone her entire life and finally being given a weapon. She realizes her whole family paid dearly for this piece of paper, and feels like “an indentured servant who had finally been allowed to join the family” (Danticat 214).
The next morning, Grace visits her father’s grave in Queens. She brings her passport for him to see, and tells him about Caroline’s wedding. She thinks about his funeral, and how she and Caroline wanted to be his pallbearers. Hermine wouldn’t let them, saying the thought of young women being pallbearers was too bizarre.
When Grace gets back home, her mom is cooking bone soup. Caroline called, and Hermine takes this as a sign that she misses them. Grace asks if she can drop one bone into the soup pot. Hermine says yes, because it is Grace’s soup too. Grace then tries to start the free association game with Hermine, but Hermine wants to ask the first questions. She asks Grace, “Why is it that when you lose something, it is always in the very last place you look?” (Danticat 216.)
If “New York Day Women” simply introduces many of the themes and pitfalls of Haitian immigrant life in America, then “Caroline’s Wedding” gives us a full treatment of those themes and pitfalls. Generational gaps, the difficulty of assimilating to American culture, questions of national identity…these are all topics that come into play in “Caroline’s Wedding.” Similar to Suzette and her mother, Grace, Caroline, and Hermine have various differences in opinion. Unlike Suzette and her mother, whose differences were cast in a humorous light, Grace, Caroline, and Hermine all struggle to resolve their disagreements. While Grace seems to bite her tongue and let her mother have her way, Caroline refuses to concede to her mother’s opinions and beliefs. Caroline’s upcoming wedding to Eric, a Bahamian janitor, is one major subject on which Hermine and her daughters disagree, one that severely strains their mother-daughter relationship. It is only after Hermine accepts that Caroline will indeed be marrying Eric that this strain is eased.
At first, it seems as if Hermine is simply being bigoted when she refuses to approve Caroline’s marriage to Eric. In the beginning, all we know is that Hermine wants her daughters to marry Haitian men, and she doesn’t like Eric because he is Bahamian. Hermine’s discrimination against Eric because of his nationality, while problematic and unjustifiable, is somewhat understandable. Hermine is clearly trying to hold on to the vestiges of her Haitian roots in any way she can. No one in her family has ever married a non-Haitian person, and she wants to keep it that way by mandating whom her daughters can and cannot marry.
The revelation following Eric’s dinner party further complicates the situation. Hermine tells Grace that she and her husband always feared that Caroline might settle for someone less than she deserved because of her missing forearm. Because Eric has a speech impediment, Hermine is afraid that he might see himself as settling for Caroline. This, paired with Eric’s refusal to follow Haitian nuptial customs (asking for the blessing of the bride’s parents, a big wedding in a church, gifts for the bride’s mother, etc.) is at the root of Hermine’s displeasure over Caroline’s wedding.
Hermine’s infamous bone soup symbolizes her struggles with her daughters. A cornerstone of Haitian cooking, bone soup is said to cure all sorts of illnesses and right any type of wrong. In the months leading up to Caroline’s wedding, Hermine serves bone soup with every dinner meal, hoping that the soup will perform the miracle of breaking up Caroline and Eric. Grace and Caroline eat the soup to placate their mother, but do not believe in its supposed power. In a moment of annoyance, Caroline jokes that she will dunk her entire head into her mother’s pot of soup and will blind herself with the scalding liquid. Perhaps then, she reasons, Hermine will realize the soup’s ineffectiveness. To Hermine, her daughters’ rejection of the bone soup is another sign that they have abandoned their Haitian roots. Half joking, half serious, she laments that her daughters have become American, and makes fun of their lack of taste buds.
Another important symbol in “Caroline’s Wedding” is Grace’s American passport. When Grace has to trade her naturalization certificate for a passport application at the beginning of the story, she feels like abandoned, unclaimed property. This feeling persists for most of “Caroline’s Wedding” and reifies itself in Grace’s dreams of her father. In these dreams she can never reach or touch her father, she can only look at him. Caroline, however, stands right next to him in these dreams, and interacts with him. Because Caroline was born on American soil, she was born a citizen and is thus ‘claimed property’: she is claimed by the American government and claimed by Grace and Caroline’s father. Grace never truly feels claimed until her passport arrives in the mail. At that point, she feels “like an indentured servant who finally been allowed to join the family” (Danticat 214). Her passport is like her umbilical cord or a birth certificate—it is her link to her family and proves that she belongs with them.
“Caroline’s Wedding” is a fitting end to the Krik? Krak! collection. After starting with a failed voyage to the United States in “Children of the Sea,” some of our characters have finally made it. But while they left behind some of their problems in Haiti, new problems take their place in America. Successfully leaving Haiti and reaching America is just half the battle. And yet, by ending “Caroline’s Wedding” with a peaceful, happy moment between Grace and Hermine, Danticat sends the message that though the United States isn’t perfect, it can be home for Haitian immigrants too.