Bitter Grounds

Sandra Benitez, Author
Sandra Benitez, Author Hyperion Books $22.45 (444p) ISBN 978-0-7868-6157-6
Reviewed on: 09/01/1997
Release date: 09/01/1997
""In Salvador, coffee steams while it sits,"" warns the epigraph to this piercing tale of two Salvadoran families. In El Salvador, coffee provides the way of life. Savored by both plantation owners and poverty-stricken pickers, the brew is as much an elixir as it is a divider of the social classes. This addictive novel from Benitez (A Place Where the Sea Remember) follows three generations of the Parietos clan and the family they work for, the Contreras, through the knotted complexities of Salvadoran power and politics from the 1930s to the '70s. Two women are the catalysts: Mercedes Prieto, a pacifist Pipil Indian and wife of a poor coffee picker, survives the destruction of her village and the kidnapping of her son by the National Guard; Elena de Contreras, matriarch of the coffee plantation, harbors a wounded and bitter heart. They, and the children they bear, are locked together by love and loyalty as well as torn apart by betrayals as they are involved in the country's struggles. For all its compassion and anger, Benitez's saga is surprisingly free of propaganda: both classes are capable of deceit and greed, fidelity and kindness. Her Spanish-sprinkled, elegant prose is mesmerizing in its simplicity and frankness. (Sept.)