Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Hummingbird's Daughter 2006

As the year winds down I've been thinking about what my goals are for 2012. One thing I would like to nurture is my creative spirit. It's been a long time since I spent time really attending to my interests of reading fiction and dabbling in writing. So for 2012, I want to invest in my creative self. My first step in that direction is to attend the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College. It's an every other year gathering of folks who are interested in the intersection of spiritual matters and the written word. My favorite librarian, Mary Post, invited me to join her in reading through the works of the authors who will be in attendance and then discussing them before the conference. So I've sent my elf to the library and he returned with piles of fiction and a few nonfiction pieces as well. I've been slowly working my way through them and it's amazing how books can bring me into deeper consideration of the world around me.

I just finished the EPIC novel by Luis Alberto Urrea, "The Hummingbird's Daughter." Since finishing it I've been trying to sum up my thoughts. It's more difficult than I would have expected. But then again its probably difficult because that's the tenor of the book, it's a deep and thorough read that can't be easily summed. For one thing the book has quite a bit of Spanish mixed in with the English so I'm certain that I missed nuances and allusions throughout the story. Also the plot moves slowly with a tremendous amount of attention placed on details of the environment and narrative style. It's a masterful work of fiction that part of me is finds amazing. The story is rich in historical context and character development. Then there is the land and the country that serve as an entire additional character. This is the type of novel I read and think, "wow, this must have taken decades to write!" (and yes the author reports that he had been working on it since 1984.) Its rich and deep and very well layered.

********If you do not want the plot spoiled please do not read any further!

All of that being said I still found myself struggling at points to get through. There were a number of places that the book seemed to lose me either in the somewhat trudging pace or the entrance of another character (there were many and it doesn't help that my lack of Spanish skills keep me from really remembering some of the names well!). But I pressed on and found the book rewarding in its completion. I think the piece that has stuck with me the most is his portrayal of a young girl's transformation from very human to saint. Teresa (the main character) seems at the beginning to be set for a significant role in life but it is very slow coming. Many times she also seems very human and common, much like ever eventual followers. I was struck by her slow progression to significance. She and Huila (who seems to play a sort of classic "cranky tough nut") in this story ever establish a affectionate bond but it is certainly loving in nature. Teresa's gifts are evident from the beginning and the novel seemed somewhat predictable until she is attacked. At that point several things happened that turned the story into a different entity all together. Probably most striking is that Teresa dies and comes back to life, i.e. is resurrected. Not vampire style ala Twilight, no she comes back human and very real. And it's a shock to everyone because she gets out of her coffin during the period of mourning and because she isn't quite herself. I though it was very fascinating that she came back to life and it took her several months/years to adjust back into humanity. Meaning she seemed to sort of live in an "out of body, dissociative experience" prior to really acclimating back into her body. During this time she had also strengthened her power to heal and people flocked to her in order to be cured of whatever ailment they experienced. So she has thousands of people making pilgrimages to her front lawn near the end of the story.

This is where the historical context becomes important. She is perceived as dangerous by the authorities since she preaches a message of love, equality and compassion. Dangerous, right? She is jailed and eventually exiled to the USA. Historically, there is nothing like preaching love that will get you jailed, killed or exiled, it appears. The book ends there, and I was left wondering what happens throughout the rest of her life. She was only 19 years old upon leaving Mexico though it seemed she should have been older based on the detail of the book. The author writes in the back that this story is based on a real person within his family who he grew up hearing about. He mentions historical documents that reference her and her works of healing. The book reads a bit like a family history with its many references to extended members of the Urrea clan and their properties.

Final word, I liked the book overall and probably found Teresa's mixture of humanity and sainthood the most interesting part. I will be interested to hear what this author has to say about his conceptualization of how humanity is affected by the experience of peering over the other side in to death and then coming back into the consciousness of the living as he writes in Teresa's character.

And just because here's Nemo... walking!

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