This is the story of Sara and Richard Everton, a couple embarked on a journey of renewal. They leave a house and job in San Francisco and travel to the small Mexican village of Ibarra to reopen a copper mine, abandoned in 1910 by Richard's grandfather. They also plan to restore the family home, a crumbling reminder of the past. However, they learn that Richard is dying of leukemia.
The book consists of several interconnected stories revolving around the lives of Sara and Richard Everton who have returned to Mexico in 1960 to restore his grandfather’s copper mine, abandoned since the 1910 revolution. They plan to finish out their lives in the small Mexican village of Ibarra. Both are around forty but the author makes it clear that Richard has only a few more years to live as he is suffering from leukemia.
“The Everton’s left San Francisco and their house with a narrow view of the bay in order to extend the family’s Mexican history and patch the present onto the past. To find out if there was still copper underground and how much of the rest of it was true, the width of the sky, the depth of stars, the air like new wine, the harsh noons and long, slow dusks. To weave chance and hope into a fabric that would clothe them as long as they lived.” (Page 3)
The charm of this book is the interaction with the simple, both profoundly poor and yet prescient Mexican people, as they go about their daily lives. They are fatalists, for the most part and bravely accept the cards they’ve been dealt while expressing deep faith in God and the belief in magic and the spiritual world. Their stories made me ache for them, so lacking were their lives. But they all maintained a fatalistic attitude that allowed them to quietly, bravely endure.
“The Everton’s, as they walked past the church, saw the three beggars on the steps. They were counting their money and appeared content. They had not been so rich since this time last year. The coins that made their pockets sag would satisfy every requirement of the foreseeable future, if the cold let up, if they could patch their roof and their shoes. If the laurel leaf on the brow cured the headache and the string around the throat cured the cough. If they survived the night.” (Page 144)
Front and center over all the stories is the indication that Richard will not live for much longer and the overwhelming sadness when he finally succumbs. The housekeeper, Lourdes, was in the habit of leaving things in hidden locations throughout the house; things that might bring on good luck in one way or another and in going through some boxes in preparation for leaving Ibarra, Sara finds the remnants of these good luck charms:
“Behind a recipe for oyster stew she found a twice-doubled piece of pink paper. ‘What is this?’ she said aloud. The residual dust of dry leaves lay in its folds. Sara lifted one of the veined, scented skeletons. ‘Chamomile,’ she said, and knew it was from Lourdes, knew it was meant to ensure impossible things, long life, a forgiving nature, faith.” (Page 205)
In her short writing career, Doerr only produced two other books. I have read one of them “Consider This, Senora,” and found the writing to be just as spare and evocative as in her first book. How unfortunate for we readers that her talent wasn’t unearthed earlier in her life, allowing her to become a prolific writer. As for me, I will continue rereading what she did produce since it is simply sublime.
"Every day for a month Richard has reminded Sara, 'We mustn't expect too much.' And each time his wife has answered, 'No'. But the Evertons expect too much. They have experienced the terrible persuasion of a great-aunt's recollections and adopted them as their own. They have not considered that memories are like corks left out of bottles. They swell. They no longer fit." The grandfather's house is more rundown than they expect, the journey to find it tougher than anticipated. But they settle in quickly, and the villagers take to them. The Evertons bring jobs and respect, along with their peculiar American ways.
There's a beautiful passage in which the villagers finally find the word to describe the couple, mediodesorientado, or half-disoriented, like the joyful child who has been spun around many times and blindly strikes at the pinata, making everyone laugh.
As we learn early on, Richard has been diagnosed with a seemingly incurable disease, and may only have six years to live. The book affectionately describes their time together in Ibarra, much of it through the eyes of Sara, as she learns Spanish, becomes enmeshed in the community, and deals with her husband's condition. At the same time, he and the locals work to make the mine prosper and the community thrive. The villagers' stories supply many of the book's attractions: the priest who keeps being sent comically ill-suited assistants, the entrepreneur dedicated to setting up a taxi service between villages, the woman who helps at the house who is determined to repel sickness and bad luck through her folk knowledge, and many others.
The villagers try to help the Evertons with witchcraft and herbs, and stoically resist concepts of modern medicine. Staunchly Catholic, they, including the local priest, nonetheless accept the Evertons' agnosticism. The couple's kindness and friendliness, and positive effect on the community, outweigh their shortcomings. Sara learns lovely and increasingly creative stories from the nun teaching her Spanish, which she brings home to a disbelieving Richard. They light candles, sit by the fire, and share their day together. This is a graceful, charming book, about transplanted Americans and their effect on closely observed lives in a small Mexican village.
I don't find it so startling that a 70-something woman wrote these as her first book. Or that she was coaxed into it while completing a long-delayed B.A. What amazes me is that she didn't even keep diaries during her years in Mexico. Maybe she was writing letters?
The prose is spare, the mood is both tender and melancholy. Intimations of mortality flash throughout. I found the opening paragraph of each chapter was often striking, as Doerr introduced a new scene, setting or characters. For example:
In Ibarra half a year is no more than a shard chipped from the rock face of eternity.
Believing as they did in a relentless providence, the people of Ibarra, daily and without surprise, met their individual dooms. They accepted as inevitable the hail on ripe corn, the vultures at the heart of the starved cow, the stillborn child.
This beautiful book was published when Harriet Doerr was 75 and it won the National Book Award for best first novel in 1985. A true late bloomer!!
format: 214 page paperback
acquired: inherited from my neighbor upon his move
read: Feb 20-24
Doerr's claim to fame seems to be that she published her first book, this one here, at the ripe young age of 74. She outlived her husband, who died of leukemia, and then went back to school to complete her unfinished BA and that led to here.
Gentle and atmospheric are two things I struck me initially on starting this. Richard Everton abandons his career in the US to re-open a family owned mine in the middle of nowhere desert of Mexico. He brings his wife, Sara, and they move into an old run-down mansion in a tiny town, find plenty of locals willing to work the mine. Shortly afterward he is diagnosed with leukemia. Most of this is autobiographical.
The novel isn't like a novel. It has the feel of linked short stories, with each chapter focusing on one character or oddity of the region. Several were published prior to the book. First Sara is generally amused. She struggles to learn Spanish well enough to have clear communication, but wonders and is charmed by the passionate and brutal Catholic community she now lives within. But these stories seems to get darker, and Richard gets sicker, and husband and wife remain non-religious outsiders (called North Americans), wealthy benevolent respected and necessary heathens. Eventually the stories settle more on Sara and her mental and emotional struggles with her husband's sickness, and somewhat with her grief after his passing. There is a cumulative gravitas. And there is a lot of Mexico. Still thinking about it.