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Review: The Hummingbird’s Daughter, by Luis Alberto Urrea
Little, Brown, 2006. 495 pp. $15

This beguiling novel defies first appearances, and a lucky thing for me, or I wouldn’t have read it.

Set in late nineteenth-century Mexico, The Hummingbird’s Daughter tells the early life of Teresa, the so-called Saint of Cabora. Born the illegitimate, half-Indian child of a well-to-do rancher, Teresa shows remarkable aptitude from a young age. She learns to ride a horse better than most men, to read, to dispute, and to remain serene in the face of insult, all of which appalls and enthralls her natural father, Don Tomás, who–extraordinarily–welcomes her into his house. She also studies with Huila, a salty, old herbal and spiritual healer, eventually surpassing and supplanting her; that too appalls and amazes Don Tomás, who worries what will happen. The young girl travels to far-off lands in her dreams, converses with God, delivers babies, and develops a large following, which, as Don Tomás has predicted, can come to no good.

José de la Cruz Porfirio Diaz Mori, who ruled Mexico for thirty-five years,, photographed in 1910; this novel portrays him, from afar, as a corrupt, malignant figure (Courtesy Aurelio Escobar Castellanos Archive, via Wikimedia Commons)

José de la Cruz Porfirio Diaz Mori, as he appeared in 1910, ruled Mexico for thirty-five years; this novel portrays him, from afar, as a corrupt, malignant figure (Courtesy Aurelio Escobar Castellanos Archive, via Wikimedia Commons)

As a rule, I avoid magical realism. As far as I’m concerned, One Hundred Years of Solitude is aptly titled, because those are the conditions I’d need before I could finish it. My teeth hurt if I have to read how the mystically gifted sweep away evil merely by waving a hand, and how a popular uprising forestalls the vengeance that would ordinarily result. Nor do I care much for macho fantasies in which beautiful women fall into an unscrupulous seducer’s arms without having to be asked twice, and that their love either reforms him, makes the earth move, or both. And much as I detest various aspects of modern life, I groan whenever I come across a narrative based on “the wisdom of the ancients,” as if peccadilloes of the past like witch-burnings, serfdom, or endemic smallpox never happened, or that our contemporary malaise wouldn’t last ten minutes if we could only summon up pseudo-profundities said to be lost to time.

Nevertheless, The Hummingbird’s Daughter, which skates parallel to that last category, is a terrific book. Urrea wins over this jaundiced reviewer for several reasons, chief among them his refusal to let his theme obscure reality. Teresa, or Teresita, as she’s usually known, may be called a saint, a title she dislikes and has never sought, but that only increases her burden to prove herself. Thousands of people flock to receive her healing powers, imputing to her motives, methods, and sympathies that she doesn’t possess. The established church calls her a heretic; the politicians, a traitor who preaches revolution. Men despise her for being a woman beyond their control, even as they dream of raping her. Those who fashion themselves of European extraction hate her as an Indian. Consequently, not only does Teresita fail to bring evil to a standstill–never her intention, anyway–everyone sees in her what they wish, using her for their own purposes. Naturally, the poor young woman tires of it all.

Only vigorous, unbridled prose can carry a narrative like this. Urrea’s grasp of biblical phrasing, Spanish cadences, and florid, earthy expression make this novel a delight to read:

Crows, attracted by the stink and the tumult, spied on them from the treetops, hopping along from tree to tree, peeking out from between the ragged leaves. And buzzards, attracted by the flapping crows, hypnotized by all the wandering meat beneath them, circled and dreamed of putrescence and death, the deliciousness of rot. And unknown and unseen, to the north of the trail only five miles away from the rancho, three dead men grinned under the soil, shot by Rurales for their scant gold and their boots, buried hastily and half-eaten by beetles and voles, tunneling wildcats and foxes, these three leathery travelers vibrated underground as the people passed, shook in their paltry graves as if they were laughing, giggling, their yellow mouths wide in toothy hilarity.

But besides casual violence, lust, and the hardness of life, there’s humor too. I laughed at the burro who dreamed of kicking the children entertaining themselves at its expense, at Don Tomás’s seemingly endless supply of friendly insults, and the various harmless obsessions that grip the characters. The laughter helps see to it that events and actions in The Hummingbird’s Daughter are seldom just one thing but many, depending on how they’re viewed, and Urrea has the sense not to push too hard. For instance, Teresita learns to remember always that she comes from the earth and belongs to it (the essential difference between herself and the corrupt, Westernized church and government). Yet she also comes to appreciate modern conveniences that Don Tomás’s engineer friend, Lauro Aguirre, has installed in the main house. So the reverence for old ways gets tempered, somewhat, or at least makes room for certain pleasures.

And speaking of pleasures, that’s what The Hummingbird’s Daughter is, a rollicking tale in which the many pages slide swiftly by.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.