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!!
In the first chapter, “The Evertons Out of Their Minds,” the couple go to Mexico from San Francisco, California, to reclaim their family estate and reopen a copper mine abandoned since the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Not long after their arrival at the unexpectedly dilapidated house, which fails to match the faded family photos or the Evertons’s dreams, Richard is diagnosed with leukemia and given six years to live. Despite the brevity of the second chapter, “A Clear Understanding,” several months pass in which the Evertons are observed by the townspeople, who find the Americans peculiar. Interestingly the Evertons never really shed their outsider status in spite of their interest in the culture of the small community.
Richard seems emboldened by his medical diagnosis and works hard to make the mine operable, hiring many locals and becoming something of hero in a strange way. The stories that comprise the short chapters drift backward and forward in time, though when a native is asked about specifics of an incident he replies: "Senora, it is as difficult to recapture the past as it is to prefigure the future." The author meanwhile is successful in portraying the landscape, and gradually providing evidence of the kind of culture that exists in this out of the way place.
The town priest is a frequent visitor to the Everton home, and he figures in many of the vignettes of the novel. He has a variety of assistant priests, who build basketball courts, are beloved of dogs, and impregnate a woman from a neighboring village. He sponsors a town picnic and solicits donations from the nonbelieving Evertons. Other vignettes relate the sad tale of brother killing brother, the use of native remedies to protect the Everton house, Sara’s Spanish lessons with Madre Petra, and the visit of a Canadian geologist and his Lebanese engineer.
The novel is written in a thoroughly crafted prose in which each sentence is pared down and polished until only the essential remains. As a consequence, the reader seems to somehow create the text while reading it, to discover in Doerr’s spare phrases the meaning and emotion the characters themselves hesitate to reveal. The novel reveals as much about the “lost” American expatriates as it does about the Mexican natives, by shifting perspectives and allowing the reader to see each group or individual through the eyes of the other.