This book is fantastic, in both the popular and archaic senses of the word. It is extraordinarily good or excellent, as Merriam-Webster and Dictionar This book is fantastic, in both the popular and archaic senses of the word. It is extraordinarily good or excellent, as Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com define fantastic - but is also “conceived of unrestrained imagination”, “marked by extravagant fancy”, and colored with “extreme individuality”.
Sharman Apt Russell takes one of the most interesting historical accounts of American colonial history as the jumping off point for her book of marvels. Spanish nobleman Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, who accompanied Pánfilo de Narváez on an ill-fated expedition to Florida in 1528, was shipwrecked on Galveston Island, enslaved by Native peoples, and then escaped captivity with two other Spaniards and a Moroccan Berber. These four men – the only survivors of an expedition that began with over 400 men on five ships – healed sick and injured Native peoples with their ceremonies, traded, and traveled on a circuitous route across modern day Texas and Mexico that lasted for over six years, until they encountered Spanish slave-traders in northern Mexico and returned to Spain in 1537. Cabeza de Vaca published an account of his experiences in 1542; his Relación has served as a rich and insightful source of information on Native peoples and their environs for governments, anthropologists, scientists, and historians for centuries.
Teresa (of the New World) is the totally fictional - but not improbable in terms of parentage - daughter of Cabeza de Vaca and a woman of the people who live along the Gulf of Mexico. She comes of age on her father’s journey and in a colonial governor’s mansion in Mexico, with her roots in two worlds – the Old and the New, Spanish and Native. Teresa’s story is exquisitely researched (based on both Cabeza de Vaca’s Relación and historical descriptions of Spanish encomiendas, epidemics, and slavery in Mexico) - but it is also beautiful and full of the poetry of everyday life, death, and the natural world, and steeped in the magical realism of both Native beliefs and her father’s Catholic faith and Spanish folksongs.
I went and read a little about magical realism after finishing Teresa of the New World – I knew the story fit the genre, generally speaking, but wasn’t sure how to describe the genre. It turns out magical realism is rather hard to pigeonhole (see Alberto Álvaro Ríos’ website for definitions, defining narratives, meditations and notes on it), but I can safely say that Russell’s story blends historical accuracy with a fictional character who transforms the common into the awesome and unreal, utilizing magic intertwined with myth, surprising the reader with its forays across cultural boundaries.
Perhaps more importantly, a month after reading Teresa’s story, I still remember many of the images and characters vividly – and will for a long time (and not just because I plan to read it again). Not many books stick with me like this, or compel me to subsequent reads to appreciate different aspects of such a multi-layered story.
Some of the things I remember: the loads of firewood that the people carry, their hunger, the pits they dig for baking cactus, the fermented or ripe, red, prickly-pear fruits, mesquite pods, yucca plants and grass seeds, packrat nests, twisted juniper trees and peccaries, and mice, hares, rabbits, lizards, and ravens. Then there are the gardens of the governor’s mansion, with its herb gardens of yarrow and mint, sage and oregano, balm and lavender, and rosemary (one character’s body odor threatened to overwhelm the rosemary), and the kitchen work: tending fire, chopping vegetables, grinding corn, and cutting up duck, turkey, cow and deer. There are lavishly carved vines on a dark, polished walnut escritorio – a writing desk – and a pompous war horse “raised in the sweet perfume of the sweetest city of Spain” (p. 85) who isn’t afraid to bite and who raises his tail to deposit acrid but not unpleasant smelling piles of dung. I think Horse is the best fictional horse I’ve encountered since I read The Horse and His Boy in the early 1970’s.
Anyway, there are also mosquitoes and blackberries. There is the earth itself, with its beds of granite, limestone reefs filled with “curved shells, bony fish, and the long skeletons of monsters with pointed teeth and flippers and tails” (p. 157). And then there’s a jaguar and a child who comes near death from measles, which was deadly to the Indians who had no immunity to this and other Old World diseases.
One of the creepiest parts of Teresa’s story actually involves the horrible epidemics of the 16th century that may have contributed to the deaths of up to nine out of ten people in some communities:
“The women in the kitchen sang: Sarampión toca la puerta. Viruela dice: ¿Quién es? Y Escarlatina contesta: ¡Aquí estamos los tres! The cook would sometimes shout a little madly, “Sing it again!” And the women would sing again: Measles knocks at the door. Smallpox asks, Who’s there? And Scarlet Fever replies: All three of us are here!” (p. 53).
This was apparently (and perhaps still is?) a well-known song in many parts of Latin America, and fear - also known as Plague later in the book - turns out to be an important character in Teresa’s story, who doesn’t knock at the door so much as sneak and swagger in wearing different disguises.
Teresa of the New World is a story of marvels and heartbreak and endurance, illuminating a little known period of history, suitable for middle-grade readers without ever being too juvenile for adults. I did occasionally wish there was a map, perhaps on the endpapers. There are many sites online that attempt to trace Cabeza de Vaca’s journeys, but I also wanted to know where the Governor’s mansion was and the village of the Opata and where “the wise woman’s crumbling adobe with its flat space for a garden and white bluffs falling to a view below” (p. 178) was. I doubt that many other readers – especially the kids and teenagers that I sincerely hope will read this book – will feel the same need to locate Teresa’s journeys on any maps outside of those in their imagination. ...more
This is a kid's book - aimed at either older middle graders, or young teens. It's the story of an 11 y.o. who lives near Andrews Air Force base (her dThis is a kid's book - aimed at either older middle graders, or young teens. It's the story of an 11 y.o. who lives near Andrews Air Force base (her dad is a pilot) in MD in 1962. She is worried about "duck and cover", she has a sister in college who is acting suspicious, her uncle who lives with them may be going crazy, and her little brother is perfect.
It's a great story, but the prose is interspersed with lots of artwork and clippings from 1962 - short articles, posters, pamphlets, pictures, cartoons. I absolutely loved this (I felt like it made the narrative deeper and richer somehow), but I know some people were irritated and/or confused by all the stuff that didn't relate directly to the story. A lot of the stuff did end up relating to the story, though, even if you don't realize it right away.
It was loads of fun to read, and I would really recommend it to any kid who needs to understand a bit more about the 60's or the Cuban Missile Crisis. Or adults, for that matter. ...more
This is a kid's (older elementary/tween/young teen) book produced by National Geographic that I ran across after reading White Masai - I wondered whatThis is a kid's (older elementary/tween/young teen) book produced by National Geographic that I ran across after reading White Masai - I wondered what this memoir by a Masai man would add to my perception of this African culture that Hofmann's books overlooked.
It did add some interesting insights into Masai culture, but man this is one patriarchal society. Lekuton also describes the religious & social importance of age-mates and circumcision (which happens for boys between the ages of 12-20), but not much about girls or women is mentioned. The only woman that even comes up is Lekuton's mother. It was a little disappointing (but definitely less annoying than Hofmann in terms of the narrator ). ...more