THE HUMMINGBIRD'S DAUGHTER
By Luis Alberto Urrea
Little, Brown. 499 pp. $24.95
By the second paragraph of this luminous novel it's clear that we're securely in the hands of a fine storyteller. "On the big Santana rancho," writes Luis Alberto Urrea, "the People had never seen paved streets, streetlamps, a trolley, or a ship. Steps were an innovation that seemed an occult work, stairways were the wicked cousins of ladders, and greatly to be avoided." The naivete, caution and mundane reality of the supernatural in that sentence, as well as the surprises, pervade The Hummingbird's Daughter, a loosely biographical novel about a folk heroine, healer and mystical santa for thousands of rural Mexicans in the 1880s.
Teresita Urrea was a distant relation of the award-winning Mexican-American author, who put 20 years of research into fictionalizing her story. But if this epic brings her to vivid and impossible life, it also makes her larger than that, larger even than the rebellion against Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz that rumbles just offstage throughout the book. Urrea's real subject is belief itself -- in gods, in destiny, in leaders, in love, and in the possibility of a future. This book is pure delight to read.
Teresita is the illegitimate daughter of Don Tomas Urrea, the delicious, rambunctious owner of a good-sized rancho in Mexico's western Sinaloa province. Her wraithlike mother, a field worker nicknamed Hummingbird, is only 15 when she gives birth to Teresita, whom she soon abandons to grow up amid the pigs and chickens. But a hummingbird is a messenger of the gods, and the girl has a red triangle mark of destiny and power on her forehead, so the rancho's cranky old midwife and healer, Huila, the Great One, keeps an eye on her and eventually takes her on as an apprentice.
Urrea signals Teresita's growing powers in lovely moments, one after another. Wandering into the rancho's off-limits main house, the young girl encounters her father for the first time -- and a column of wood and glass with a beating heart. "I have been talking to this tree, but it won't answer me," she tells him. Charmed, he tells her it is a grandfather clock and shows her his pocket watch, which plays a small bit of Mozart. "It is the grandson watch!" she exclaims. Soon she is part of the household.
God, Huila tells Teresita as she teaches her about herbs and spells, is practical. "We are always looking for rays of light. For lightning bolts or burning bushes. But God is a worker, like us. He made the world -- He didn't hire poor Indios to build it for him! God has worker's hands. Just remember -- angels carry no harps. Angels carry hammers." Later, Huila scoffs at Teresita's desire to learn to read. "Like babies are for women, books are for men," she says. "Rich men." But Teresita does learn to read, with Tomas's help.
The Hummingbird's Daughter is paced beautifully, inexorable and slow-seeming as life itself. The daily trivia of Teresita's childhood is as fascinating as the punctuations of amazements, beauties and horrors. In 1880, threatened by Porfirio Diaz's long arm of repression, Don Tomas packs up his family, his workers and all their worldly goods and moves them to a remote valley in the province of Sonora. "The People tied their miserable bundles. They were amazed that they had less than they thought they had; it was a wonder to them that it took so long to pack nothing." Also traveling in "this mobile flea market" were "an army of recalcitrant mules, jolly burros, mindless oxen, ducks, turkeys, chickens, and roosters in wicker cages, an evil-tempered and half-bald swan, a turtle in a washtub, and one llama appeared from nobody knew where." Arriving, they find less than nothing -- their destination farm has been burned by Yaqui Indians.
As they build a new life, Teresita becomes a skilled midwife and healer, but two-thirds into the novel, she is the victim of a violent crime, and the book levitates into gritty magical realism in the best Gabriel Garcia Marquez manner. After recovering, Teresita dispenses even more powerful wisdom and cures. She preaches a doctrine of self-reliance and independence to so many pilgrims that she threatens the nation's political leaders.
To the very end, The Hummingbird's Daughter is a book of surprises and savory treasures. Urrea's much-praised recent work, The Devil's Highway, was a journalistic re-creation of the deaths of 14 Mexicans who crossed illegally into the U.S. southern desert in 2001. He has loosened his expressive reportorial skills to write lyrical fiction, and we can only be grateful. *
Joanne Omang is a writer and former Washington Post correspondent in Latin America.