Saturday, April 10, 2010

Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya

This is our library's annual selection for The Big Read -- an NEA-sponsored event in which an entire community reads the same book.  There are some great books on the list, and someday, I hope to read all of them.  (For a list, or more information about The Big Read, click here.)  I was really interested in reading this since I've read so little Latino fiction, plus I'm taking a Spanish class which has made me even more interested in Latino culture.  Unfortunately, though, this book somehow just didn't connect with me.

Here's the basic setup: Set in the 1940s, just before the end of WWII, a little boy named Antonio Marez lives in a rural community in New Mexico.  His parents are complete opposites:  his deeply religious mother is from a family of farmers who are very tied to the land; his father is a hard-drinking vaquero, a former cowboy and hates being tied down.  It's Antonio's three older brothers are off fighting the war in the Pacific, Antonio's mother and father are constantly arguing about which side of the family little Antonio takes after, and what he's going to do with his life. 

At the beginning of the story, Ultima, an elderly lady who is a curandera -- a sort of wise woman/herbalist/traditional healer -- is coming to live with their family.   Some people think Ultima is a kind of a witch, a bruja (see? those Spanish classes are helping!)  Antonio's mother is deeply religious, but somehow Ultima's presence in the home isn't at odds with her Catholicism.  Ultima has some sort of connection to Antonio, since she was the midwife who delivered him.   Having Ultima in the house is botth good and bad -- Antonio starts learning a lot Ultima's crafts and talents as a healer but at the same time she introduces a lot of traditional beliefs that make him begin to question his Catholic upbringing.  He's also starting the English-speaking school, so his whole world is changing.

There's a lot of conflict in this book -- Antonio is struggling to reconcile his Catholic beliefs with Ultima's traditions, and other traditional beliefs and superstitions.  One of Antonio's school friends also has a lot of Native American beliefs (though there aren't actually any Native American characters in the story).  There's all this conflict between the parents and their families, and then Antonio's brothers all come home from the war.  Having Ultima in the house also creates problems for him and his family because a lot of people think she's a witch. 

This book was an easy read, and mostly well written -- I particularly enjoyed all the vivid descriptions of rural New Mexico.  This book really has what book reviewers call "a sense of place."  But there were some things that I just didn't get, or didn't seem realistic.  First of all, this is constantly called a "coming-of-age story."  Huh?  This boy is six years old, and the story finishes when he's not even eight!!  I'm sure children grew up faster back then, but still, this story would have been a lot more believable to me if he had been twelve or even ten.  I was also really bothered because of all the pressure his mother was putting on him to become a priest -- he's a little boy!!  Maybe this is just a cultural thing that I can't relate to.  Also, I was surprised that so many of the characters in the book were devoutly Catholic, yet they still believed in witchcraft and traditional medicine.  I think this is common in some cultures, which sort of blend traditional beliefs with Christianity.

Anyway, there are some other mystical elements in the story that are never really explained.  I'm not sure if this book could be considered Magical Realism, like some books by Allende or Garcia Marquez, two authors whose books I have liked.   I know it's considered a groundbreaking book for Chicano literature -- Rudolfo Anaya was one of the first Latino writers widely published in America, and this book is routinely studied in high school and university classes.  This was an interesting book, and I'm glad I read it, but I'm not quite sure if I liked it.  If nothing else, it was good for a book group discussion.

6 comments:

  1. Yeah, like I said at book club today, this sounds much more interesting than I expected!

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  2. If you have time to read it, I would love to hear what you think about it. Maybe next year we can read something off The Big Read list. Lots of great stuff!

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  3. I read this years ago. I honestly don't recall much about it so apparently it wasn't a memorable book for me either. But i am surprised to hear the main character was only 6-8 years old! Wow. I REALLY don't remember it being a little kid!

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  4. I know! To me, coming of age indicates young adult. There's a lot of stuff about his struggles with his Catholic faith and his first communion, so I was wondering if that was why the author made him so young. Honestly, I think I would have found it more believable if he had been 12 or 13.

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  5. That's one I've not heard of. Our big this year is going to be The Wizard of Earthsea, which I think is going to be a blast to do! All festivities at our library will begin in Sept.

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  6. Suey, that sounds really fun -- I've never read anything by LeGuin, don't know how I missed her. Another book to put on my to-read list! Are you planning on reading it? If so I look forward to hearing about it.

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