“Backroads to ‘Bethlehem’” is the prequel to William “Duke” Smither’s “Passage(s) to Saint-Domingue.” Set in 1693 during the waning days of the fugitive slave village in Northeastern Brazil, Smither explores the intricate sociopolitical climates between the Maroons before the First Maroon War in Jamaica.
The Maroons were descendants of escaped slaves who had formed distinct social dynamics in several parts of the western hemisphere. These dynamics included a “state within a state” arrangement, where former slaves of blended backgrounds, including Western African, Taino Indian, etc., work together.
“Maroon” is derived from the Spanish word “cimarron” based on the Arawakan Indian roots. Initially referring to the domestic cattle taken to the Hispaniola hills to American Indian slaves that escaped from the Spaniards in the Caribbean, the word has since referred to Afro-American runaways which has strong connotations of “fierceness” and “wildness.”
“Backroads to ‘Bethlehem’” explores the dynamics between a few characters who are part of a system that aims to wreak havoc on the colonialists in Brazil and their sympathizers. Labaan, a fierce Maroon warrior of Western African heritage, must learn to be a warrior in battle and “peace.”
During these seemingly “peaceful” times, community relations are tense. The author does an incredible job of showcasing the complexities of the Maroons’ feelings toward the colonizers. Despite the conflict between the maroons and colonists, their existence is interdependent as they rely on each other for trading goods. The Maroons also live in a perpetual state of war, never really achieving peace, but only a sense of silence before the next goal. The author remarkably showcases tension, making the “state of war” almost like an instinctual part of the characters’ survival instead of a necessary tool.
Nevertheless, the male characters aren’t the only ones struggling with conflict. Many prominent female characters in the plot also face their fair share of adversities as they navigate a tense society.
As you read the book, you can’t help but appreciate the author’s essential attention to detail. He masterfully weaves important events of the era while simultaneously creating a plot that is not only compelling but incredibly well-orchestrated. I can’t help but feel the rush of tension whenever the story’s focus shifts from character to character. Each character has its fair share of goals and motivations. The author’s effortless world-building makes it easy to sit through and imagine the events as they unfold before your very eyes.
Overall, “Backroads to ‘Bethlehem’” is a book that doesn’t only focus on the tension of an upcoming battle but the instinctual need for one to adapt whenever necessary. Rich in detail but also profound, it is the type of book that gives you a new perspective on a relatively influential part of history.
– The Moving Words Review
Official Entry: The Most Moving Book Award, Jan. 3, 2024