cover image Spirits of the Ordinary: A Tale of Casas Grandes

Spirits of the Ordinary: A Tale of Casas Grandes

Chronicle Books, Kathleen Alcala. Chronicle Books, $22.95 (204pp) ISBN 978-0-8118-1447-8

In her first novel, Alcala (author of the story collection Mrs. Vargas and the Dead Naturalist) has crafted a fecund fable about the convergence of cultures--Mexican, American and Jewish--along the Mexico/Texas border. The Carabajal family clandestinely practices their Jewish faith in a northern Mexican village of the 1870s. Julio spends his days in his secret Hebraic library; his wife, Mariana, hasn't uttered a word since childhood; and their son, Zacarias, who'd rather prospect for gold than learn a trade, has married a Catholic woman, Estela. Estela's family has a few secrets of their own: an intensely independent woman, Estela has raised her family single-handedly during her husband's long gold-hunting absences and has decided to cut him off financially; her younger brother and sister, twins, have been banished to Texas because of their scandalous androgyny; her unmarried daughter is pregnant; and now her own love affair with an army captain is about to be exposed, while her Zacarias is being hunted by the government for inciting a purported Indian uprising. In the tradition of Latin American literary fabulism, Alcala's seductive writing mixes fatalism and hope, logic and fantasy, to create moral, emotional and political complexities. But her characterizations and plot sparkle with a freshness that is an apt fit for the new social order she writes about with a multicultural vision notable for its lack of preachiness. Readers will be happy to learn that this enchanting episode is the first of a trilogy. (Feb.)