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Twelve-year-old Sophie Caco returns to her home in Croix-des-Rosets, Haiti where her Tante Atie waits for her on the porch. If this sounds sweet and idyllic: it is. If you think that this sweet, idyllic-ness is going to last, however…
Sophie's pleased with herself because she's made a Mother's Day card for her auntie (aww, that's super sweet)… but finds that Atie won't accept it. Her aunt believes that she should send it to her real mother, who lives in New York. Hmm. The plot thickens.
Later that evening, Atie and Sophie attend a neighborhood potluck dinner. The rumor mill's been hard at work since neighbors saw that a large parcel was delivered to Atie's house. Pretty soon the entire community's claiming that Martine, Sophie's mother, is sending for her to come to New York.
Sophie is mighty upset by this news, but it's clear that she won't have a say in the matter. Everyone thinks it's for the best that she leaves Haiti for the U.S. to begin a new life with her mommy.
Sophie and Atie make one last trip to visit Ifé, Sophie's maternal grandmother. It's clear that Ifé loves Sophie to pieces, and is glad that they won't be visiting for long since she's afraid of falling into a depression about the kiddo's imminent departure.
When Atie brings Sophie to the airport in Port-au-Prince, they're faced with violence in the streets. Soldiers clash with students, and there's bloodshed. Atie tells Sophie that it's a good thing she is escaping Haiti.
On the plane, Sophie sits next to a hysterical little boy who's just witnessed his father's murder (yikes) in the clash outside the airport terminal. The two children sleep until they reach New York and their parents claim them.
But Martine isn't what Sophie expects. Her mother looks thin and sickly, and her apartment is kind of the pits. But Sophie had promised Tante Atie that she wouldn't fuss at her mother, and she's as good as her word. She's a model child.
On her very first night in the apartment, Sophie witnesses the effects of her mother's nightmares. They're terrifying, and Sophie spends a sleepless night with her mother—which gives a whole new meaning to the expression "the city that never sleeps." Soon, Martine realizes that Sophie doesn't know the real story of her birth, so she explains (in general terms) that she (Martine) was raped in the sugar cane field near her home in Haiti. With all of this new information, Sophie realizes that she's in for a challenging time in New York.
After taking a tour around their Haitian-American neighborhood, Sophie meets her mother's boyfriend, Marc Chevalier. He seems like a decent enough dude. She learns about her mother's expectations for her: no boyfriends till eighteen, hard work at school.
Ugh. Looks like the next six years are going to be all work and no play for little Sophie.
We time travel six years to find Sophie as an 18-year-old high school graduate. She and her mother move to a house in Brooklyn and Sophie immediately develops an interest in their neighbor, who's a musician. We get it: musicians are hot. The problem? He isn't Haitian and he's way older than Martine would like.
Sophie begins to see Joseph whenever Martine's working at night. She falls in love with him, but knows that her mother won't approve. She tells Martine that she's dating a Haitian boy, but soon her mother realizes that Sophie's lied. She begins virginity testing—yup, you read that right— Sophie to make sure she's not having sex with Joseph.
But Sophie isn't having this. She destroys her hymen with a pestle from the kitchen (gulp) to stop the humiliating tests, and she elopes to Providence with Joseph.
Two years later, Sophie returns to Haiti, this time with her own daughter, Brigitte, in tow. She's left her home without telling Joseph that she was going. When she arrives at Ifé's house in Dame Marie, her grandmother understands that something's wrong.
Sophie confesses that she's having trouble having sex with her husband and grills Ifé about the virginity tests. Ifé tells her that she's sorry for being the source of Sophie's pain (since she passed this virginity testing "tradition" to Martine), but that she was only doing what a good mother was taught to do. Also, she thinks that Sophie needs to get over it if she wants to move on with her life. (Ifé's from the "tough love" school, obviously.)
We also learn that Atie's changed over the years. She's bitter because her life feels purposeless and she has no family of her own. She hangs out with her friend Louise, who's taught her to read—but who's also become her drinking partner.
Soon, Martine appears at Ifé's house. Joseph had contacted her and she has come in search of her daughter and granddaughter. Though the two haven't spoken since Sophie's elopement, Martine wants to be friends with Sophie again.
Sophie confronts her about the virginity testing and gets a similar answer to Ifé's: it was what good mothers did to preserve their daughter's reputation. Sophie and Martine leave Haiti together after Martine squares away some legal things for Ifé.
Back in Brooklyn, the women open up a little about their lives. Sophie tells her mother that she suffers from bulimia; Martine tells Sophie that she burned all of her daughter's things in anger after she left to get married. Martine's nightmares continue.
Sophie learns that her mother's pregnant with Marc's baby and that Martine's conflicted about it. She's thinking of having an abortion. Sophie returns to Joseph in Providence and has to face up to the problems in her marriage.
She continues with her therapy and with her sexual phobia group, both of which are intended for her regain control of her body image and to let go of the traumas of the past.
Sophie feels that she's ready to reconcile with her mother and believes that they'll both be safe, even though Martine's becoming increasingly tormented by her pregnancy. She thinks she hears the baby's voice taunting her, and is determined to have an abortion.
One evening, Marc calls her to say that Martine's killed herself. Sophie makes the trip to Brooklyn and then Haiti by herself for her mother's burial. At her mother's gravesite, Sophie becomes overwhelmed and runs to the cane field where Martine had been raped. She rips the sugar cane from the ground with her bare hands, and feels that she's finally been freed from the burden of her mother's nightmares.
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