Wednesday, May 21, 2008

BOOK REVIEW: Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya

Bless Me, Ultima is set in a small village on the edge of the plains (the llano) of New Mexico during the 1940s. It is a coming of age novel from the Hispanic perspective. Six year old Antonio must grapple with many conflicts as he strives to grow into a man in a multi-faith, multi-cultural setting.

Antonio has been born into a Catholic family and looks forward to his first Communion, but he has many questions about his natal faith. Paganism is native to this area of the Southwest and Antonio finds much to admire in this belief system. Antonio has a keen eye and mind that is open to many ideas as he searches for what is true. Both world views are present within his home. His mother is a strong Catholic while his elderly aunt Ultima (La Grande) is a curandera (healer) who aligns with a more pagan world view with its focus on the natural world.

Being in the Southwest, Antonio must also live in two cultures simultaneously. His native tongue is Spanish. When we first encounter Antonio, he speaks no English. He learns the English language and Anglo culture at school and is such a quick learner that he is promoted directly from first to third grade after his first year at school. He has a naturally inquiring mind that works well in a scholarly environment.

Antonio's mother is extremely proud of her little scholar since she has aspirations for him to become a priest and fill a role that has been missing for generations from her agrarian family. Antonio's maternal grandfather and uncles are the Lunas. They are peaceful farmers connected to the land and the flowing of seasons. Mama wants her Antonito to grow into a gentle and quiet man who fits into the Luna family mold. Antonio's father hopes for his son to become, like all Marez men, a plainsman of the llano. This group are a free spirited and wild bunch who prefer the wide open spaces and nomadic life. Alongside this parental struggle to bestow identity upon their son, is Ultima who teaches Antonio the healing arts and encourages him to listen to his own mind and heart. Ultima tells him that he must decide for himself what kind of man he will become.

Antonio experiences change as a palpable thing that affects him deeply as he searches for identity and embarks on his journey to manhood. I was transported back to that youthful hypersensitivity to change as Antonio tells his brother:
"I don't know--sometimes I get the feeling that I will come home, and it will all be changed. It won't be the same anymore--" I could not tell him that I wanted the castle of giants to stand forever, that I wanted the goat path and the hill to be for always. But I had misgivings, I was beginning to learn that things wouldn't always be the same.
Bless Me, Ultima is a poignant novel that engaged my emotions while it wrapped me in beautiful prose that made it hard to put down each night. I was drawn into the story. I felt sadness and terror and confusion. I also felt happiness and peace and hopefulness. Anaya's descriptions of the natural world were absolutely stunning and, at times, brought me to tears. I have only one real criticism -- Antonio would have been more credible if he had been twelve or thirteen. At six, Antonio was not really on the cusp of manhood nor would he have had the philosophical thoughts presented. Even so, I will not soon forget this book.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Note to other reviewers: I would be delighted to add a link to your review if you have reviewed this book. Please leave a permanent link to your review in the comments and I will include it as a part of this post.

Also reviewed by:
Eva at A Striped Armchair

1 comment:

  1. Wow, what a fabulous review! I've never heard of this book but it certainly sounds like one I would enjoy. I'll have to see if the library has it. Thanks!