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for people who care about the West

Return to innocence: A review of Queen of America

 

Queen of America
Luis Alberto Urrea
492 pages, softcover:
$14.99.
Little, Brown and Company, 2011.

 

It's hard to be a saint, but being a saint's father, husband or friend can't be easy, either. 'Not all crosses are made of wood,' as Luis Alberto Urrea observes in his novel Queen of America. It's a sequel to his 2005 book, The Hummingbird's Daughter, which first detailed Urrea's imagined version of his real-life great-aunt's childhood. The illegitimate daughter of an elusive Yaqui Indian woman and a wealthy landowner, Teresita, known as the Saint of Cabora, is both worshipped and persecuted for her mysterious gift of healing. Chased out of Mexico, pursued by assassins, burdened by doubts and besieged by fanatics, Teresita and her father crisscross borders not only between countries, but also between centuries, and ultimately, worlds.

In turn-of-the-century America, everyone wants something from Teresita. Her father wants to regain wealth and power. Mexican revolutionaries want a mascot. Shady businessmen hope to make some money. And always, ailing pilgrims haunt her doorstep, yearning for miracles, taking 'her hands in theirs, dry and soft and hot as little birds, and they would position them near spots on their bodies, nodding, whispering in their language that she somehow understood.'

Urrea spent over 25 years immersed in Teresita's world -- tracking her migrations, sifting through old letters and clippings. Part Western, part magical realism, sometimes funny and always compassionate, the story brings to life a sensual world of ethereal connections and clashes, between loyalty and loneliness, duty and love.

Seduced by fame and distracted by guilt, Teresita is paraded from San Francisco to St. Louis to New York. Years pass, and eventually the saint cannot remember 'the last time she had touched the soil with her feet … had pulled a fruit off a tree or ridden a horse or prayed in a sacred spot.' The final realization overwhelms her. 'She had nothing but expensive clothes and buckled shoes, hats and ribbons and hairpins and stoles. Nothing that mattered. No shells. No bones, or seeds, or branches with leaves.' Her own healing begins only when she leaves this shiny world behind and returns to the hills, to her family, going back to her roots and reclaiming her life for herself.