Tuesday, July 26, 2005

"The Hummingbird's Daughter"

A few weeks ago I was contacted by Time Warner Books to see if I would be interested in reading a new novel with a storyline set in the state of Texas. I declined on that book, but was pleased to be offered a chance to read Luis Urrea's newest novel, The Hummingbird's Daughter.

Having never read anything by Urrea, I was unsure what to expect. When you are introduced to a new author, there is more than the unread story, there is the simultaneous experience of learning the writer's style, his personality, his voice. Urrea's writing is definitely from a masculine point of view, although his descriptive passages are rich and filled large with unique perceptions of life. The story moves along at a pace different from how a woman might write; not better nor worse, just different. Urrea's tale is one of family heritage: the Hummingbird's daughter, the Saint of Cabora, is his great-aunt in real life. What a wonderful gift to pass on to his heirs, family lore preserved for many generations.

With immigration and border control a big issue here in Texas, the story is even more poignant. Although my own state's heritage is closely intertwined with our neighbors to the south, I know so very little about the history or the culture of Mexico's indigenous peoples: the Yaqui, the Mayos and the Tepehuan. Nothing prepared me for the gritty yet spiritual lives of the Mexican people in the 19th century. Urrea works magic more special than any cinematographer; his words flow through the pages as if they were rich oil color dripping from an artist's brush.

The story is one of a Mexican Joan of Arc; a saviour to her people, a female mystical Merlin. Teresita, daughter of an Indian peasant and a wealthy land baron, is born to a different destiny. A cinderella tale without a prince (unless you count God as such), Teresita comes back from the dead with the gift of healing and the ability to stir the peasant class into revolution. So many levels of human complexity within this novel, I have decided I must reread it. Some other reviewer compared Urrea to Cervantes, and I can see that thread of connection. I am not a religious person, but found myself experiencing the spiritual place Teresita walks in; no preachiness, no glib exultations, just a simple faith in miracles and the existence of a power greater than herself.

In the last pages of the book, Teresita has a ghostly conversation with Huila, her old teacher, a medicine woman, now long dead. Huila instructs Teresita to "look", to see the stars with more than her eyes. Forming brilliant silver globes, each star globe held a moment in time for Teresita, past, present and future. Huila gives this beautiful zen-like description of life:

"It is you. Every you, every possible you. Forever you are surrounded by countless choices of which you are to be. These are your destinies."

Huila touched a globe. It rang softly like a chime. In it, Teresita sat on the train.

"This is your next second", Huila said. "All of them. Every moment of your life, every instant, looks like this. Do you see? You are always in a universe of choices. Any moment of your life can go in any direction you choose."


Huila teaches Teresita she must learn to choose, learn to see, this is her life, what it looks like to God every second of every day. She tells her that most of us walk a straight line in life; marching like sheep we walk into our own mirrors: only seeing ourselves as we go through life.

My recommendation of The Hummingbird's Daughter is thus: if you enjoy feasting on an author's words, if you delight in being transported effortlessly by the turning of a page, this is a book you can't leave unread. No matter your religious faith or unfaith, this novel will not disappoint.

Oh, one more thing: you might want to have a Spanish to English dictionary handy. Urrea assumes his readers are bilingual, which I am not even though I understand a fair amount of "Tex-Mex".

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