Saturday, June 28, 2014

Book Review: The Hummingbird's Daughter

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How would you approach writing a novel -- or even a short story -- about someone in your family tree? This is a challenge I have wrestled with, and I found it incredibly difficult. On the one hand, I feared straying too far from the facts I was able to find about my ancestors and their lives, concerned that my imagination might be taken as “truth” in the minds of readers. On the other hand, however, their lives seem to embody stories worth telling about what it means to be human in specific contexts. In The Hummingbird’s Daughter, Luis Alberto Urrea brilliantly straddles this dilemma as he “recounts the true story” of a distant relative, Teresita Urrea.

Luis Urrea’s deep insights into living a bicultural life, as was Teresita’s, probably stem from his own birth in Tijuana, Mexico to a Mexican father and an American mother. Currently Urrea is professor of creative writing at the University of Illinois-Chicago. A best-selling author of thirteen books, he has published extensively in multiple genres, winning numerous awards for his poetry, fiction and essays. 

The Hummingbird’s Daughter chronicles the first half of the life of Teresita Urrea, who Urrea grew up believing was his aunt, but later learned was actually a more distant relative. Teresita was born to an Indian mother and philandering Mexican land-owning father in the Mexican state of Sinaloa in 1873. She lived several years in the state of Sonora, then was exiled with her father to the U.S., where she eventually died in 1906. (A sequel, Queen of America, picks up her life after exile). 

The story is set in antecedents to the Mexican Revolution against president and dictator Porfirio Díaz. Teresita grew up learning to navigate the worlds of Mexico's Indigenous people and the landowners who descend from their colonizers. She learned arts of healing from Huila, a beloved Indian curandera. She identified with the People (Indians who worked the ranch), and more generally with the various Indian tribes she encountered, particularly Yaqui and Mayo, even though she came to live in the house of her father, with whom over time she developed a strong bond. A turning point in her life, and in the novel, is when she rose from the dead (or from a grave illness, depending on one’s interpretation), and became a healer working miracles. To the Indians, she was a saint; to Porfirio Díaz, she was "the Most Dangerous Girl in Mexico." 

Urrea tells her story through the genre of magical realism, which was how she was interpreted by those around her. He had considerable historical records to work with (explained in Author’s Note at end of book): writings by a friend of Teresita’s father who became a journalist in the U.S.; a tape-recorded eye-witness account of her; time spent with a distant relative who was medicine woman; a trunk full of documents, letters, and pictures related to her; many scholars who had studied and written about her; and considerable time immersing himself as best possible in the context of her life.

Urrea explains on his blogsite that the twenty-year process of writing this book was incredibly difficult, partly because he is a story-teller rather than a historian: “I had to learn a lot of things. I had to learn Mexican history, revolutionary history, Yaqui and Mayo cultural history, Jesuitical missionary syncretistic history, family history. I had to study with medicine people and shamans, midwives and curanderas. That’s a big load of study for someone who didn’t much like school. But fortunately for me, I had all this juicy mind-boggling story to play with.”

In my estimation, The Hummingbird’s Daughter masterfully synthesizes history, family memory, and story-telling. The book breathes life into the facts Urrea was able to amass. In the process, he tells a larger story of what he learned from Teresita’s life about love (between child and mentor; between a father and children born out of wedlock), spiritual power and healing, the ongoing injustice of violent conquest, possibilities of personal transformation, and human survival. 

I had a hard time putting the book down. When I finished reading it, I had not only learned a good deal about Mexican history in a specific place and point in time, while enjoying a well-told story; I also gained a sense of how I might approach deeper storytelling based on my own family history.

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