Sunday, 29 January 2012

Sweeping, Colourful Yarn

It took a while, but it's finally out: the review of Luis Alberto Urrea's Queen of America. I was bummed at first to learn that it was another of those "sequel novels" but it turned out all right, even without reading the first book.

The way I wrote about the descriptions of food in the novel is a reference to the author's vivid, evocative storytelling, not about the topic. This is not a food book.

I don't know if they've modified or kept the standfirst in the print version, but I'm putting it in here.

...wait, did they uncensor the "b*****d" in my submitted copy?

Sweeping, colourful yarn
The "hummingbird's daughter" grows up and finds hope and heartbreak in a new country

first published in The Star, 29 January 2012

A controversial bill of law signed last year in the US state of Arizona, according to the Los Angeles Times newspaper, "bans schools from teaching classes that are designed for students of a particular ethnic group, promote resentment or advocate ethnic solidarity over treating pupils as individuals." As a result, schools in Tucson, Arizona also banned such titles as Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years and William Shakespeare's The Tempest from classrooms.

And this book I'd just finished reading, would they ban this, too? I wonder.

Queen Of America is about Teresa Urrea (1873-1906), who was revered as the "Saint of Cabora" by Mexico's indigenous Mayo and Yaqui populations.

Her popularity with the Indians and the poor made the Mexican Government nervous and, after her exile, she came to the United States and briefly stayed in Clifton, Arizona, before embarking on a managed tour across some major US cities.

After a quarrel with her minders, Urrea (known as Teresita) cancelled her tour and went home to Clifton. She reportedly died of an illness in 1906 and is buried there.

This book is the sequel to The Hummingbird's Daughter, which chronicles Teresita's early life up to the moment she was exiled from Mexico.

Both were written by Luis Alberto Urrea, the 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist for non-fiction and member of the Latino Literature Hall of Fame. Teresita, it seems, was the author's great-aunt.

In Queen Of America, Teresita and her father have fled to the United States. Trailing them are assassins, possibly hired by the Mexican regime at the time, as well as multitudes of pilgrims and people seeking healing. And reporters.

Her father, the now jobless and purposeless Tomás Urrea, is often drunk and depressed but Teresita, besieged by the sick and poor, has no patience for her dad's mood swings. Adopting a neutral position, the US Government won't accept the Urreas as citizens.

Tomas eventually puts down roots in Clifton. However, Teresita longs for more. She marries a stranger who turns out to be a bit – it was said – bonkers. Unable to go back home, she accepts an offer of a lift to San Francisco.

After healing someone there, her tour around America begins. She faces much of the same: needy people, curious Yanquis, doubting reporters, and strident critics – and finds a new love interest.

In this fictionalised retelling of her life, it's hinted that Teresita's powers are real.

The Hummingbird's DaughterQueen of America
The fictionalised story of Teresa Urrea, the "Saint of Cabora",
is told in these two books - the results of a total of over 20
years of research

Urrea blends history with fiction so well it's hard to tell whether an event is authentic or apocryphal.

You want to believe the salty correspondence between paper man Lauro Aguirre ("My Beloved Companion, You Degenerate Wretch, Tomás: Things are excellent in El Paso! Even a dissolute drunkard like yourself could be happy here.") and Tomás ("[Spanish bad word] Aguirre ... How it darkens my day whenever another letter from you arrives, you pretentious bastard.") actually happened. Spanish words in the narrative add flavour and Spanish swear words add spice. I chuckled upon spotting several of the latter – thank you, Anthony Bourdain.

Speaking of that celebrity chef, Bourdain of the descriptive prose: oh, the vivid, mouthwatering descriptions of food, of chillies rellenos "searing on the flame"; fried tortillas "awash in pico de gallo salsa and crushed avocado wedges with lime"; new things such as "los pancakes"; and even more tortillas, "lying like tawny magic carpets beneath the drooling eggs" along with "diced nopal cactus, melons, oranges, coffee, and watery milk". Don't read when hungry.

Urrea's painstakingly researched novel (six years worth; The Hummingbird's Daughter took 20) also explores Teresita's emotional tug of war between home and the heart.

Readers' hearts will break, little by little, as her hopes are dashed, raised a little, and dashed again in the rollercoaster of a life away from her father: her failed first marriage, the US tour, becoming a mother, and her father's passing.

Eventually, the novelty of her US roadshow wears off.

After the birth of her daughter, her second pregnancy and her father's death, the "queen of America" realises that she's the queen of nothing, and that everything she really wanted is everything she'd left behind. She returns home but not long afterwards, symptoms of her illness appear....

What a sweeping, frank and colourful yarn. Urrea's latest is a brave yet delicate effort that weaves his great-aunt's history into an entertaining yet touching non-hagiographic work that honours her life and times.

The new Arizona law might keep this book out of the state's schools, but at least one copy should find itself into everybody's hands.

At the risk of sounding stupid, through the flawed magic of Google Translate: Gracias por esta hermosa historia (thank you for this beautiful tale), Señor Urrea.

Queen of America
Luis Alberto Urrea
Little, Brown (2011)
491 pages
ISBN: 978-0-316-18764-0


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