The narrator, a young woman named Josephine, sits in a rocking chair with a Madonna doll she inherited from her mother. The Madonna emits a perfect tear from its porcelain face, and Josephine wonders if that means her mother has died. Although her bones ache at the thought of going into Port-au-Prince, Josephine prepares to go visit her mother at the prison in the city. During her walk to the prison, an old woman selling leeches stops Josephine and asks to see the doll. She also asks the young woman where she’s from, and Josephine tells her she is from Ville Rose, the city of painters, poets, and coffee. The old woman guesses that Josephine is heading to the prison to see an inmate, and offers to show her a place where she can buy food for inmates.
Josephine buys food for her mother and enters the prison. Built by American Marines during the 19-year occupation of Haiti by the United States, from the outside it is a solid and durable fort-like structure. Inside, the smell of the food Josephine bought mixes with the odor of urine and excrement. A few minutes after Josephine enters, her mother emerges from the depths like a ghost. She is skinnier than the last time her daughter visited her. Her skin hangs from her bones, “falling in layers, flaps, on her face and neck” (Danticat 34). These wrinkles are a source of suspicion for the prison guards, who believe they are the result of witchcraft. Josephine’s mother was originally arrested on charges of dabbling in the occult, and has been sentenced to life in prison. When she dies, her remains are to be burned in the prison yard, to prevent her soul from entering a new body.
During her visit with her mother, Josephine doesn’t speak. She simply gives her mother the Madonna doll and the food she brought. Her mother is thrilled to the see the doll and handles it very carefully. She asks if the doll has cried yet before breaking into sobs herself. A guard comes with a rifle and taps Josephine’s mother in the torso so she’ll stop crying. She complies, and puts on a brave smile. She tells Josephine that the guards haven’t treated her horribly. They do shave her head every week, and force the other women prisoners to pour ice water on each other at night. This is to prevent the women from growing their wings of flames and escaping.
As Josephine and her mother sit quietly, the other female inmates begin to walk into the prison yard. They are all in various states of poor health and decay. Some have weeping scabs and bruises. They have all been accused of being witches, of “rising from the ground like birds on fire” (Danticat 36).
Thinking about these women reminds Josephine of the day her mother was arrested. They had just moved to Port-au-Prince and were staying at a friend’s house. The friend’s baby was sick from colic, and Josephine’s mother helped look after it. One day, Josephine woke up to the sounds of a mob outside the house. Rushing out of the house, Josephine saw the mob hitting her mother with rocks and punches, and two policemen dragging her away. Amongst the mob was the friend with whom Josephine and her mother were staying. The woman had accused Josephine’s mother of killing her baby and so the crowd had gathered together, calling Josephine’s mother a lougarou, a witch, and a criminal. Josephine tried to break through the crowd, but it was too thick. All she could do was watch helplessly as her mother was dragged away.
The memory of her mother’s arrest sparks another memory. This time, Josephine and her mother are at the Massacre River, where the soldiers of the Dominican Republic murdered thousands of Haitians, including Josephine’s grandmother. In this memory Josephine’s mother speaks to the river, thanking it for saving her from its womb, while Josephine was still in her womb. Josephine remembers visiting the river many times, occasionally with other women who had also lost their mothers there. For Josephine’s mother, the river was where it all began. She says to Josephine, “at least I gave birth to my daughter on the night that my mother was taken from me” (Danticat 40).
Back in the present day, Josephine gets ready to leave the prison. Her mother promises to tell her the secret of how the Madonna cries, but Josephine already knows. Still, she humors her mother. When she tries to hug her mother goodbye, her mother pushes her away and tells her to visit again soon.
The next two visits are brief and troubling. Josephine’s mother has developed a cough that she can’t get rid of. Josephine wants to embrace her mother, but knows her mother will refuse because she fears giving her daughter one of the prison sicknesses. During the second visit, Josephine wants to break her silence with her mother, but cannot find the words. All her mother does is cry and act deliriously. She even refuses to hold the Madonna doll. When Josephine finally does speak to her mother, she asks, “Manman, did you fly?” (Danticat 42.)
A week later, a woman named Jacqueline comes to Josephine’s house in Ville Rose in the middle of the night. She is dressed in all white and claims to have gone to the river with Josephine and her mother in the past. As a test, Josephine leads Jacqueline through a question-and-answer sequence that all daughters of the river know. Jacqueline passes, and tells Josephine that her mother is dying, if not already dead. The pair rushes to the prison in Port-au-Prince.
At the prison gate, the guard tells the women that the body of Josephine’s mother is being prepared for the afternoon pyre. Josephine is frozen in shock and Jacqueline asks to be taken to the cell Josephine’s mother lived in. In the cell are six other women, each wearing or holding something that belonged to Josephine’s mother. The inmates tell Josephine that her mother was beaten to death in the prison yard because the guards did not know how to cure her sickness. They give Josephine a pillow filled with her mother’s shorn off hair.
Josephine wants to leave, but Jacqueline says they should stay and watch her mother’s body burned. Josephine says she would stay if she knew the truth about her mother’s supposed ability to fly. Jacqueline asks if she never asked her mother about flying. This triggers a memory in Josephine. She remembers a story her mother told her about that day in 1937, the day of the massacre. Weighed down by Josephine’s unborn body, her mother leapt from the Dominican side of the Massacre River to the Haitian side. The red water of the river, red from the blood of slain Haitians, clung to her body and looked like flames.
Back in the prison yard, Josephine holds the Madonna doll, looks toward the sun, and thinks that maybe one day she might see her mother there.
A tale overflowing with mysticism and history, “Nineteen Thirty-Seven” illustrates the incarceration side of life in Haiti. Through the story of Josephine and her mother, Danticat shows what used to happen to powerful, strange, and unpopular women in Haiti. Wrongfully accused of killing her friend’s baby, Josephine’s mother is condemned as a witch, beaten in the streets, and sentenced to life in prison. Her possible connection to magic and the occult makes her a threat in the eyes of society. Judging from the intense feelings of the mob that beats Josephine’s mother, magic and the supernatural are not topics to be tossed around and trifled with in Josephine’s time. And yet, in “Children of the Sea,” characters are almost flippant in their references to wanga magic and the like. This suggests that only certain types of people are automatically condemned when they are accused of using magic. Fatherless and husbandless, with presumably a dearth of money, Josephine and her mother are amongst society’s vulnerable and thus cannot successfully challenge those who imprison Josephine’s mother. While in other stories mysticism plays a more benign role, in “Nineteen Thirty-Seven” it is a knife that slices off the characters’ wings.
The topic of wings and flight is pivotal to “Nineteen Thirty-Seven.” In prison, Josephine’s mother and the other inmates are doused nightly with cold water in order to prevent them from sprouting wings of fire and escaping. This myth that the female prisoners can fly is so pervasive that Josephine’s own daughter asks her mother did she fly. Rather than say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, Josephine’s mother gives a cryptic answer. It is only after her mother dies that Josephine recalls her mother did “fly” once. She “flew” across the Massacre River to escape the Dominican soldiers and emerged from the river with her blood-red wings. Of course, Josephine’s mother did not actually flap wings like a bird does. However, to save herself and her unborn baby, she did have to soar through the air like a bird when she jumped from the Dominican side of the river to the Haitian side. It may not have been a literal flight, but it was a flight to freedom nonetheless.
In addition to the themes of mysticism and freedom, the theme of mother-daughter relationships is important in “Nineteen Thirty-Seven.” Although they don’t speak much during the final days of Josephine’s mother’s life, Josephine and her mother have an ironclad, undeniable bond. This bond began as the typical bond between a mother and her child, and was solidified by the blood of Josephine’s grandmother during the events at Massacre River. Josephine’s grandmother sacrificed herself so her daughter and unborn granddaughter could make it out of the Dominican Republic alive. Later that same day, shortly after her grandmother sacrificed herself, Josephine was born. In the words of Josephine’s mother, Josephine “came out at the right moment to take [her] mother’s place.” (Danticat 40) From this quote it is clear that for Josephine’s mother, Josephine fills the void her mother’s death left. The Madonna, passed down from mother to daughter since the days of Josephine’s great-great-great-grandmother, is a symbol of these strong generational mother-daughter relationships.
The plot of “Nineteen Thirty-Seven” also features an important and infamous episode from Haitian and Dominican history. This is the 1937 massacre of Haitians living in the Dominican Republic. The 5 days of killings were purportedly an attempt to root out migrant Haitian workers who worked in the sugar plantations along the Haitian-Dominican border. Once dead, the bodies of the murdered Haitians were dumped en masse into the Massacre River, a body of water separating the two countries. This is where the story of Josephine and her mother intersects with actual Haitian history.
The horrors and brutality of the 1937 massacre place “Nineteen Thirty-Seven” in a unique historical and political context. While the focus of “Children of the Sea” is primarily Haiti’s internal strife, “Nineteen Thirty-Seven” shifts the gaze to Haiti’s relationship with its neighbors.