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Book Review
By

Vincent Bosquez


Book Review: Names on a Map by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Harper Perennial, $14.95

 

         While America’s "Greatest Generation" had World War II and today’s generation has the ongoing Gulf War, a generation that lived through the Sixties had Vietnam, a military conflict that indisputably defined an era and carved a permanent wound into the nation’s psyche.

            Award-winning author and poet Benjamin Alire Sáenz has boldly sidestepped contemporary history and set his sights on revisiting our nation’s turbulent past to tenderly tell the story of an immigrant family trying to adapt to its adopted land while coming to terms with the true cost of freedom in America.

            Set in 1967, Sáenz’s Names on a Map follows the Espejo family of El Paso, Texas, during a momentous week in September when a draft notice forces them to drop the veil of secrecy that cloaks their fears and causes them to confront their internal conflicts etched by customs accepted in Mexico, but found to be out of date north of the Rio Grande.

            Octavio Espejo is the son of a wealthy family that was run out of Mexico during a bloody revolution when he was a child. Now, as patriarch of a close-knit family in the United States, he tries to rule the clan with an iron hand only to find that strict adherence to house rules causes irreparable rifts in personal relationships.

            Gustavo, Octavio’s son, is the recipient of the draft notice that sets into motion the novel’s overarching theme of loyalty to family, country and most importantly, one’s self. He broods over the price America extracts from its populace in order to sustain peace on the home front and the realization that dodging the draft may tarnish the family’s standing in the community more than his own reputation.

            Sáenz tells his story through different points of views with voices that are unique, yet also reminiscent of the nation’s conscience at the height of the Vietnam War.

            Among the characters that emerge from the novel to leave a lasting impression is Abe, a young Marine fighting in Da Nang. He doesn’t want to think of home, yet finds that home is all he can think about—especially when it comes to his unrequited love, Xochil.

            Xochil is Gustavo’s twin sister, who is fighting her own personal battles with society. She learned early on in life that wars come in many forms and that no matter where the battlefield lies, a thousand other wars are being fought at the same time by the same participants, with no two skirmishes being exactly alike.

            Finally there’s Lourdes, the matriarch who is the glue that keeps the family together. By the novel’s end, she comes to terms with what she’s known all along: sometimes you have to give up the things you hold dear in order to hold on to them a little while longer.

             Names on a Map is an emotional journey down memory lane that reminds its readers that war indiscriminately affects everyone, extolling a price paid for in flesh, blood, and the loss of innocence in people of all ages.
 

Vincent Bosquez is president of the Society of Latino and Hispanic Writers of San Antonio, and director of public relations at Palo Alto College

 

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Last Updated: July 06, 2009