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First off, a few things the novel is not: sentimental, didactic, predictable, boring, simplistic or small.
At every point in the story, Urrea avoids the traps so common to Latino storytellers. The Hummingbird's Daughter begins with a tragic tale of a child abandoned by a young mother and raised by a wicked aunt. Yet, no matter what predictable outcome you can imagine for such a scenario, you won’t be close to the way things happen in the book. It’s not a matter of bizarre twists and miraculous events, rather just a story that unwinds in a way you wouldn’t expect. There’s some magic involved (along the lines of the fast disappearing stylistic choice of “magical realism”) but this is all set in the mystical context of “curandera” culture at once genuine, documented and powerfully real to those involved. Teresita is no Cinderella and while she is initially “rescued” by the Patrón, Tomás, he is no Prince. Whatever happens to her, the reader is never allowed to wallow in pity for her.
When’s the last time you’ve seen a writer slide from a passage straight out of John Steinbeck into something closer to Cormac McCarthy?
…the old father Colorado surged toward its delta at the head of the Sea of Cortés, the desert turned green. For three years, crops wilted or sprang up, unfurled leaves or burned black and collapsed. The Yaqui lands, forever fertile and alive, swarmed with crows; ibis followed cows between the rows of green, spearing insects disturbed by the cattle’s incessant grazing. And where a Yaqui plow sliced the earth, the white birds followed the farmer and plucked mole crickets, worms, beetles from the curling dark wave of soil…Then came a man atop a mottled horse. His buckskins were dark with filth and grease and blood and sweat. He rode near them, and Tomás smelled him. His long rifle rose high before him like a lance. His hat was tattered and drooping. The filthy rider wore a necklace of finger bones. Tufts of hair bobbed in the wind all over his saddle, He nodded once at Tomás. (266-267)
Somewhere in the first 50 or so pages of this book, the reader understands that Urrea’s evocations of the indigenous past of the late 1800’s in northern Mexico will not follow typical nostalgic patterns about the glorious simplicity of Indian life before the revolution, or before the evil Europeans destroyed their tranquil worlds. There won’t be any overly didactic historical explanations about who wronged whom or any sermons establishing the blame for past tragedies. The complications are there, and the characters live through them in all sorts of ways, but the historical accuracy (and you can tell the amount of research Urrea has done for the period is extensive) never intrudes upon the story itself.
The old woman, Huila (obviously reminiscent of the most famous Chicano herbalist, healer: Anaya’s Ultima), is not only a mystical healer and seer, but also an earthy, somewhat grotesque, cigar smoking, complaining old woman. Tomás is not merely a womanizer and macho patrón, but also a straightforward independent thinker, caring father and irreverent atheist. His illegitimate son (initially suggestive of a sort of Mordred to Tomás’s King Arthur, and then later of a possible Healthcliff as Teresita reads the Brontë sisters) is equally complicated and nothing he does or says is predictable. Urrea’s people slip outside formulaic designs, and stock identities. They are all interesting, but none based on stereotypes. Somewhere John Steinbeck once talked about being surprised at what his characters in East of Eden had done that day as if they lived outside what he wrote down on paper and were controlled by forces beyond his own imagination. One gets the sense that the twenty years Urrea says he spent thinking about this book produced a similar situation. These people are alive.
Though the book is filled with accurate history, the novel never feels like a history lesson. In fact there are times when historical events happen so quickly the reader can only dimly feel their importance. At times, it seems the novelist is consciously omitting things, or merely suggesting them in passing in order to stir the reader’s curiosity – in a way, a version of Hemingway’s famous “iceberg” technique of story telling: where because he or she can’t completely understand crucial facts, the reader feels a sort of tension which in turn mirrors the tension felt by the characters in the narrative. There’s the weight of a Mexican history behind the story and you sense its power, glimpse the magnitude of the events that paved the way for the revolution. It’s a fascinating period because of the Indians: Yaqui, Mayos, Pimas, etc., and few novels have explored the indigenous tribes south of the Rio Grande. Historical figures like Cruz Chávez and Lauro Aguirre and the real-life ancestors of the Urrea family – most prominent among them of course – Teresita: La Santa de Cabora – these are the characters in the book and all come alive as complicated, interesting people. While the book is mainly about a woman, the male characters are central, and throughout, Urrea respects his characters and none of them ever seems to fall into a type.
At the risk of sounding simplistic, the novel is a great read. It’s extremely funny at times and moving and lyrical at others. You get caught up with the narrative and Urrea is especially good at avoiding certain nagging flaws of other Latino writers. Particularly refreshing, despite the multitude of people of mixed blood and heritage, rich and poor, Indian and Spanish, these people are human beings with concerns for money and love and war—no one spends much time pondering their own ethnicity or cultural identity. Those sorts of 20th century, academic issues are left to the reader to wonder about. The characters have more interesting worries and concerns. When it comes to the writing, Urrea balances between Spanish and English effortlessly without the annoying, redundant translating or clarifying for the monolingual reader. One understands by context and yet there is enough of the Spanish vernacular to pull off the humor and natural vulgarity of the characters, especially Huila and Tomás. Even the most adamant “English Only” supporter – if there are any of those left (and would they read a book like this anyway?) wouldn’t be bothered because the transitions between his languages are so smooth
Urrea is best known for his nonfiction and his moving unsentimental portraits of border conditions: Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border (1994), By the Lake of the Sleeping Children (1996) and The Devil’s Highway (2004). When his first novel, In Search of Snow, came out in 1994, John Nichols predicted it would “establish Luis Urrea as one of the most admirable voices of his generation.” Maybe that didn’t happen, but The Hummingbird's Daughter should certainly establish Urrea as a major contributor to the Latino literary world. If Oprah complies with my suggestion above, you’ll see battered copies of this long novel in the hands of suburban sunbathers at the beach, students in summer camps, subway riders in New York and Chicago and Boston, and college students wandering the green pastures of their campus quads. It should be everywhere, and it should make Urrea a major voice in contemporary Latino Literature.
Books by Luis Alberto Urrea
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Last Updated: June 06, 2016