Friday, January 29, 2010

Book Review: "The Hummingbird’s Daughter," by Luis Alberto Urrea

Although Luis Alberto Urrea is the award winning author of five books of non-fiction, three books of poetry and two other works of fiction, I am ashamed to confess that until I began reading his third novel, “The Hummingbird’s Daughter,” I had never so much as heard of him, let alone read any of his work, but if this third novel is in any way representative of his previous work, that is truly my loss. Luckily it is a loss that is reparable, if not at the local library than perhaps at Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

Set in rural Mexico in the last third of the nineteenth century, “The Hummingbird’s Daughter” tells the story of Teresa Urrea, the illegitimate daughter of a poor Indian woman and a philandering wealthy rancher. Abandoned by her mother, Teresa is left in the care of an unfeeling aunt who treats her much in the fashion of the storybook wicked step mother, until the girl is taken under the wing of an older Indian woman healer who sees in the her a great destiny. Even as a child, Teresa seems marked as someone special. She is inquisitive and learns quickly, even insisting on learning to read. A natural healing heat seems to emanate from her hands, and she can affect others with her mind. She is a guileless child of nature, who will grow from this fairy tale beginning into a healer revered as a saint, a champion of the poor and the powerless, and a symbol for a people’s revolution.

On a personal level, she must not only discover her destiny, but she must learn to accept it, as must those who are close to her. It is not easy to be a saint, nor is it easy to live with one. For people like her father, Thomas, a sinner and a cynic, her saintly faith and sacrifice are perhaps beyond comprehension. For people like Gabriela , her father’s mistress, simple and sensual, her saintly miracles spur fear and estrangement. For people like Segundo, her father’s loyal foreman, a practical man of action, her saintly notoriety is more nuisance than anything else. Still, in spite of that, a father must love; a friend must stay true, a retainer, devoted.

Teresa’s story is the archetypal initiation myth characteristic of the great hero. It follows her from her birth as she slowly distinguishes herself from the other Indian children. She learns the wisdom of her Indian ancestors from Huila, the old healer, and the wisdom of the modern world from her father’s friend, Aguirre, a great engineer: from Huila, herbs and cures, from Aguirre, the mysteries of the printed page. Already as a child she demonstrates her strength of character as she walks boldly into the forbidden territory of the rancher father’s house to try to discover who she is. She learns to see in her dreams a world more real than the physical world around her; she discovers the force of spirituality. And then after a kind of death and resurrection, she manifests at nineteen, the saintliness that has been her destiny. It is a story both mystical and miraculous.

But the power of the novel is less in its plot, than in its form and language. A good many of the most sensationalistic events–rape, torture, murder--are left to happen offstage in a fashion that reminds the reader of the ancient Greek tragedies. Indeed, Urrea artfully appropriates many of the techniques and forms associated with the most elemental literary expressions, those early masterpieces of world literature that characterized and defined their peoples and civilizations for the ages to come. He combines folk elements–tales, proverbs, home remedies, superstitions–with literary techniques drawn from the classics–epic lists, metaphysical imagery, irony and understatement, and he does it all with a poetic style that is always sensual and often startling in its originality.

There are the simple adages of the people: “If you were born to be a nail, you had to be hammered.” “Honey wasn’t made for the mouths of donkeys.” There are the folk remedies: tobacco juice for bee stings, manzanita tea to clean out the birth canal, vervain to open the black nipples to suckle the newborn. There are the superstitions: a campfire on the south side of the road is “a good omen–north was the direction of death.” “A five-fingered foot that looked like a human hand” found in a dried up turd is the remains of a devil eaten by a coyote. There is the tale: a hunter shot a doe and followed the trail of blood to a pool, “where he found a beautiful maiden with her breast pierced by his arrow.”

Complementing these primitive elements are the more sophisticated literary techniques. Long lists reminiscent of the warriors in Homer or the fallen angels in “Paradise Lost” lend a heroic stature to somewhat more mundane concerns. For example, there is this catalogue of the contents of a wagon driven North by an Arab and his family:

“A Singer sewing machine.
Cans of peaches, pears, and stewed prunes.
Bolts of cloth.
A case of repeater rifles.
One thousand rounds of long bullets.
One slightly rotten burlap bag of new Burbank potatoes.
Jujubes wrapped in wax paper.
Twenty pounds of sugar.
Five huge tins of lard.
A tin of Nestle’s Infant food: the newest sensation advanced
Cotton unmentionables, parasols, stockings. . . . .”

And so on for another ten or so items.

There are metaphors and similes that seem to descend in their exotic range from the Metaphysical poetry of seventeenth century England. “In Sinaloa, cafĂ© with boiled milk, its burned milk skin floating on the top in a pale membrane that looked like the flesh of a peeled blister.” “And a bowler hat squatted on his head like a dirty turtle.” If these images are not the extended conceits of a John Donne or a George Herbert, they are at least as original and startling. Moreover there are descriptive passages that echo the elaborate comparisons used by the epic poets. For example there is this description of the fall of evening:

“The peaks grew heavy with night, the points flaring
orange, then impossible molten copper. Red like a deep infection
crept down the cliffs and the arroyos, heavy and somehow fluid,
until it spilled purple across the plain, drowning wagon after
wagon, crawling up the legs of horses until only their backs
were left in light, like small oblong islands in a shallow sea.
Horse by horse, night conquered the plain. Fires blinked to
life, and soon the stars above and the fires below looked the
same, as if a slice of the sky had been stretched out on a drying
rack so they could eat it in the morning.”

Much like the epic lists these expansive images elevate the stature of what might otherwise be considered mundane or pedestrian. It is almost as if Urrea, like Arthur Miller in “Death of a Salesman,” is saying that these more sophisticated literary elements are not only appropriate for the rich nobility. They are suitable for the common man as well. In effect there is nobility, heroism, in all men, and the heroic style is no more to be limited to the upper classes than in the heroic character. The style then reflects the themes of a novel focused on a lowly Indian girl who becomes the heroic symbol of a people’s revolution.

This use of classic techniques for a more modern agenda is reinforced by an intermittent note of ironic understatement that runs through the novel and begins on its very first page:

“On that October day, the fifteenth, the People had already
begun readying for the Day of the Dead, only two weeks away.
They were starting to prepare plates of the dead’s favorite
snacks: deceased uncles, already half-forgotten, still got their
favorite green tamales, which due to the heat and the flies, would
soon turn even greener. Small glasses held the dead’s preferred
brands of tequila, or rum, or rompope: Tio Pancho liked beer, so
A clay flagon of watery Guaymas brew fizzled itself flat before
his graven image on a family altar. The ranch workers set aside
candied sweet potatoes, cactus and guayaba sweets, mango jam,
goat jerky, dribbley white cheese, all food they themselves would
like to eat, but they knew the restless spirits were famished, and
no family could afford to assuage its own hunger and insult the
dead. Jesus! Everybody knew that being dead could put you in
a terrible mood.”

Thematically the novel, in still another echo of classical literature, is at least on one level concerned with the age old question of destiny (fate) and individual responsibility. Teresa has a destiny she must fulfill, but she is also responsible for making the choices necessary to meet that fate. It is not merely that, like and Oedipus, she must take responsibility for those choices, rather she must actively pursue those right choices. This may well be the difference between the tragic hero and the saint. In a dream (and in dreams, the right kind of dreams, there is truth) she sees herself floating in bubbles in space–countless Teresas in countless bubbles, all representing possibilities for every second of her life. “You are always in a universe of choices,” she is told by her teacher. “Any moment of your life can go in any direction you choose.”

Urrea tells us that the novel is based on the life of a real person and a distant relation of his, but this is a novel, not a biography. The Teresa Urrea of “The Hummingbird’s Daughter” is a mythical figure. There is a real Joan of Arc and there are Joans created by Shaw and Anouilh. Urrea’s Teresa has her analogs in the latter.

“The Hummingbird’s Daughter” is a beautifully written novel, filled with passion and insight. It shows men at their best and men at their worst. It recognizes that there is brutality in life, but it also recognizes that man is capable of rising above that brutality to something sublime. What is possible for a bastard Indian child is no less possible for each and every one of us.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. Just wow. This might be the single best review of my work I've ever read. Thank you so much. I am humbled and grateful. All of which creates a lot of pressure as I am currently wrestling with Hummingbird II ... keep good wishes for me and my task at hand!
    Again, thank you.
    Luis Urrea