S.M. Stevens's Reviews > On the Wings of a Hummingbird

On the Wings of a Hummingbird by Susan  Mills
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it was amazing

On the Wings of a Hummingbird is many heartfelt stories in one.

It is a U.S. immigration story, succinctly capturing the complexities and inherent pitfalls of the immigration system.

It is a Central American emigration story, a vivid introduction to the hopelessness in present-day Guatemala—due in large part to gang violence and oppression—that drives desperate people to the American border. Impossible choices force the characters into actions they previously deemed unthinkable.

It is a love letter to Guatemala—the natural beauty of the land and the vitality of the people. Early on, Mills writes, “the beautiful and the poisonous coexisted in every corner of the alluring forest around Las Leches,” setting the tone for this tale of contradictions. Dust, ash, and dirt are offset by verdant forest and colorful wildlife. Guilt and innocence intertwine until it’s hard to know which came first. Ambition and security battle for the hero’s attention.

Mayan folk tales and fables featuring the hummingbird, falcon, and jaguar (“utter grace wrapped in opulence”) convey lessons throughout. Sumptuous dreams (some hard to follow, others transcendent) weave magic.

But most of all, this is a triumphant, hard-fought personal journey. Fifteen-year-old Petra works alongside her brother and grandparents, trudges an hour to school most days, and tries to avoid the local gang members, including her childhood friend Emilio. Severe traumas, including the murder of her best friend, punctuate her everyday life, in which the local gang routinely kidnaps, rapes and dopes young women.

At times, Petra seems headstrong to the point of foolhardiness—her faith in her own ability to remain safe despite potent threats in itself a threat to her and her family. She rejects offers of education and safe shelter and changes her mind frequently—for example, she doesn’t want to stay with friend Novina, then suddenly she desperately does. These irrational actions conflict with her aspiration to flee the gangs and become a doctor. Desire to stay close to her beloved grandparents does not sufficiently explain her choices. Further, Petra constantly runs into the face of danger. For example, in Providence, when Emilio is abducted, she immediately flies to his apartment even though his abductors are also seeking her.

Over time, we realize she is blinded to danger by searing guilt and the complete negation of her worth caused by repressed trauma. Much of the novel is about the glimmers of self-worth, confidence, and ambition poking through that veneer as her sense of self and her soul struggle to emerge from her cocoon of silent pain.

Mills avoids a clichéd, knee-jerk version of forgiveness. Instead, Petra creeps along that road at a realistic pace in keeping with the relentless trauma she experiences. The final, heart-wrenching baring of souls by Petra and Emilio sets them both on the path to healing, and re-sets their relationship with each other.

While the book would have benefitted from a tighter edit in spots, Mills’ combination of taut and tender description with mystical meanderings carries the day. As Petra’s mother says, “Mythology is not so well understood in a straight line.”

The book’s cover deserves mention for its juxtaposition—like the novel itself—of overwhelming drabness with stunning artistry—the delicate, startling, jewel-toned and realistically drawn hummingbird who hovers above a roughly-drawn tree branch against a backdrop of cracked brown earth. The use of two illustrative styles mirrors the myth and realism of the story. Never have I seen a cover so encapsulate the words inside.

(This review originally appeared on Story Circle Network.)
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Reading Progress

November 7, 2022 – Started Reading
November 30, 2022 – Shelved
November 30, 2022 – Finished Reading

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