Sometimes the connection between an author and his subject is so strong that it seems as if he’s fated to write a particular book. That’s the case with Luis Alberto Urrea and his two novels about the Saint of Cabora, “The Hummingbird’s Daughter” and its new sequel, “Queen of America.”
Urrea first heard folk stories about the 19th-century Mexican woman known as the Saint while he lived in Tijuana. His family there believed she was his aunt. The tales they told him about Teresita seemed “insane,” Urrea recalled. But years later, he learned that Teresa Urrea was indeed a real historical figure who inspired a revolt against Mexico’s oppressive president, Porfirio Diaz. In 1982, Urrea found an old biography about Teresa in the libraries of Harvard University.
It turned out that the Saint was actually a kind of cousin, not an aunt, but the other details Urrea tracked down in his 20-year search into Teresa’s life more than made up for the error. “I realized quickly that . . . she represented all the indigenous branches of our family,” he told an interviewer in 2005. “I realized that her story had been shortchanged by Mexican historians, not only because she was indigenous, but because she was a woman.”
Urrea’s desire to resuscitate Teresa’s reputation eventually inspired him to write “The Hummingbird’s Daughter.” That novel captivated readers with its account of how a poor, half-Indian child raised among pigs and chickens learns to become a powerful healer who can rise from the dead after a violent assault and inspire a generation of indigenous revolutionaries. “Everything the government does,” Teresita teaches them, “is morally wrong.”
No surprise, then, that at the outset of Urrea’s sequel, “Queen of America,” Teresa and her father, Tomas, have been exiled to the United States, lest they bring down the Mexican government. Unfortunately, separated from “the People” who gave her such political power, Teresa’s life meanders without convincing purpose, and so does the narrative of Urrea’s novel.
Teresita remains a wonderful character: a combination of deep mysticism and unpretentious common sense. Faced with a reporter looking for “some real Indian zinger” to cap off a newspaper story about her supernatural powers, she instead provides a precise medical diagnosis for her patient: cerebrospinal meningitis. “You think it is magic,” she tells the reporter, but healing “is my science.”
Most provocatively, Urrea’s description of how the 19-year-old’s ordinary, girlish desires for pretty dresses, for romance, for independence from her loving but domineering father suggests that divine grace may be as much a burden as it is a gift. The same point is driven home every time Teresa and Tomas must move on because they’re besieged by multitudes of pilgrims seeking Teresa’s cures. Yet the blow-by-blow account of her travels across America in service to God and in search of herself is tedious. As the novel moves from Arizona to Texas, back to Arizona, then over to California before marching through the East, one senses that Urrea’s need to provide a complete account of the historical Teresa’s life has jammed his sense of plot.
Events that might have made for rich exploration — such as Teresa’s brief marriage to a violent liar or her decision to shed the fame of sainthood — are given rushed, melodramatic treatment. It’s as if Urrea hesitated to linger in the murkier areas of Teresa’s psychology. The result is a novel that’s too episodic to be effectively suspenseful, and too facile to engage as nuanced portrait.
Ultimately, “Queen of America” focuses less on Teresa’s power as a leader or a healer than it does on her gradual transformation into a self-reliant woman. That’s a worthy story, but it’s a little sad to see her dissociate herself from indigenous politics after she lands on American soil. For, as Urrea notes in a poignant subplot, the position of native peoples in both Mexico and the United States continued to erode throughout the 1880s and ’90s. At one point in her travels, Teresa runs into an old Apache friend who’s now working in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. When she asks how his people are doing, he says, “We came here. It is a job. . . . The world ended.”
“The world ended,” Teresa replies, “and yet here you are at the World’s Fair.”
“Somebody else’s world.”
The Saint of Cabora learned to make her way in that new world, but in doing so she left the aspirations of the hummingbird’s daughter behind.
Valdes is a board member of the National Book Critics Circle and a frequent contributor to The Post.
QUEEN OF AMERICA
By Luis Alberto Urrea
Little, Brown. 491 pp. $25.99