I’ve just finished a book I started during a trip last week, Bless Me Ultima , by Rudolfo Anaya. Anaya is a prolific American writer of Mexican descent. He was born and raised in New Mexico and much of his work is set there. Bless Me Ultima is another of my library book rack purchases, and it’s a small paperback, which is how I chose it for my travels. It’s a novel, so I thought it would be good escapist reading at a stressful time — the bookconscious household is about to move from the Deep South to the Northeast, and while we’re thrilled, there is a lot on our minds right now. Tension is my new normal, although I am trying to relax and be mindful and peaceful. Balance is everything at times like this.
As it happens, Bless Me Ultima is a novel about living in tension, albeit far more complex than my own, and finding a balance in that tension. Anaya’s protagonist in the novel, Antonio, is only six when the book opens. Yet already he is very perceptive and his young identity is stretched between the culture of his father’s family, who are cowboys, and his mother’s family, who are farmers. He’s already acutely aware of the family’s various hopes for him, made more urgent by the fact that his three brothers, serving in WWII as the novel begins, come back changed young men, unable to stay in their small town with its confining social structure and limited opportunities.
Even more troubling to Antonio is the tension between traditional beliefs and the Catholic faith that is a major part of his life. His very devout mother prays at the feet of a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe for the safe return of her sons and ensures that the whole family says rosaries and attends mass. She tells everyone of her hope that Antonio will become a priest. But early in the book, Antonio’s family takes in Ultima, an elderly woman who is a curandera — a traditional healer and midwife. His mother embodies the ability, common in cultures from Greece to Latin America and many places in between, to meld strong Christian faith and trust in folk beliefs.
The young boy and the old woman become good friends and Antonio begins to learn the curandera’s art, assisting Ultima as she gathers herbs and even attending some of her most difficult healings. At the same time, he starts school (more tension: between Latino and non-Latino culture, English and Spanish, scholarship and fitting into the rough and tumble boy culture at school) and he begins to learn the catechism in preparation for reception of the sacraments.
As he ventures into the social circle at school, Antonio learns of a local legend that seems to be blasphemy, and yet, also appears rooted in fact. He follows his thirst for knowledge to try and understand for himself how the legend fits into his world view and his growing consciousness of life as shades of gray, not black and white. As Antonio struggles to reconcile his faith and yearning for God with the good he sees in those around him who are nonbelievers, he also wonders why Ultima can heal in situations where prayers to God or blessings from a priest have not worked.
While all of this coming of age, exploration of belief, juxtaposition of tradition and modernity is going on, Antonio’s world is rocked by evil and death. He discovers his beloved brother’s sinfulness, witnesses the death of a man who is “sick” from his war experience, sees the murder of a family friend, and watches a neighbor of his mother’s family descend into madness and vengefulness, directed at Ultima and finally, at Antonio himself.
Light reading it’s not. Escapist? No. But Bless Me Ultima, though somewhat disconcerting and difficult, is a thought provoking read. Shifting perspectives, presented through the eyes of an impressionable but strong child, force the reader to consider all points of view. As good and evil unfold, perceptions of the unconventional versus the doctrinal appear as multifaceted and vision-warping as a prism in the New Mexico sun. The reader becomes immersed in Antonio’s evolving understanding and is drawn into his struggle to transform the permutations of belief and meaning into a system he can rely on as he grows up.
Like so many good books, Bless Me Ultima left me with a slightly disoriented feeling when I put it down — I wanted to sit quietly and process what I’d read. Anaya’s description of his native New Mexico, his sprinkling of Spanish throughout the novel, and his multiple narrative threads, building to an inter-related thematic crescendo, helped me enter the time and place of the novel. It also reminded me that moving is pretty minor on the stressfulness scale.
As I prepared to write this blog entry, I learned that Bless Me Ultima is not only one of Anaya’s best known works, but also is on the “list of most commonly challenged books in the U.S.” As Wikipedia explains, if a book is on this list, it has frequently faced censorship — groups have repeatedly tried to have it removed from libraries or schools, for example. I was surprised to see how many challenged books I’ve read. But it’s not surprising that Anaya’s novel, which provokes readers to suspend their impressions and “build strength” from life’s experiences, as Ultima tells Antonio, would strike fear in parts of our society.