So Far From God, by Ana Castillo is, on one level, a modern retelling of the story of the Christian saints Faith, Hope, and Charity–the martyred daughters of Sophia–reworked into the American southwest. On the surface it’s a tale of strong women who rise above the men who abandon them or treat them brutally–much as the Emperor Hadrian’s torturers did their namesakes in the old Christian legends. And, as in those legends, the women of this story survive horrific treatment with nary a scratch or miraculously recover from mistreatment and even death–and it’s all treated matter-of-factly, as if this sort of thing occurs every day.
The style is conversational–like reading an oral history–and is peppered with Spanish (and Spanglish!) words and phrases. The style is also reminiscent of that great Spanish-language masterwork, Don Quixote, full of convoluted and earthy commentary, local idioms, and humor (as well as long-winded chapter titles). I’ve also heard the style and story compared to that of a Mexican telenovela (or soap opera).
And here, finally, are the people of New Mexico who were so absent from The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church, and The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages. The earthy mix of cultures–Hispanic, Navajo, Zuni, Hopi, Pueblo, even French–that make up New Mexico. While heavy on the Hispanic-heritage people, they are all here–sweat lodges on reservations, the Penitent Brotherhood and Catholic pilgrims, curanderas–mixed with young people who are trying to see where they fit and who they really are, blending bits and pieces to see what works for them.
With its light-hearted tone and magical realism, one might be tempted to think the book doesn’t delve very deeply into “issues,” but, as Laura Halperin writes in her book, Intersections of Harm, which discusses several Chicano novels, including So Far From God, “Castillo’s humor … call[s] upon readers to laugh and instantly wonder why they are laughing. The laughter immediately precedes a moment of critical social awareness in which readers realize the very seriousness of that which led them to laugh in the first place.” The narrator makes comments which cause us to laugh, but which also make us think about the topic we’re laughing about.
One of the sections I loved was the section where Sofi becomes “la mayor of Tome.” I love the empowerment of the town turning its fortunes around, finding a purpose, and working together. I also love that the model mentioned in the book–“a sheep-grazing wool-weaving enterprise, … modeled after the one started by the group up north that had also saved its community from destitution”–is a real-life model, Ganados del Valle and Tierra Wools, located along the high road from Santa Fe to Taos (and passing through the area where The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols (and Robert Redford’s film version) is set).
This was a wonderful book for my setting challenge! I kept stumbling over tidbits that I wanted to know more about, which would lead me to something else that I hadn’t even noticed, and that would lead me back to something else connected to a previous book. This is the part I am loving about reading multiple books set in one state–the unexpected overlaps and tidbits of understanding that I’m gathering.