REVIEW: The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars, Genre: Fiction, Pages: 495, Level: Intermediate/Difficult

Book Description from Barnes & Noble:

“Teresita is not an ordinary girl. Born of an illiterate, poor Indian mother, she knows little about her past or her future. She has no idea that her father is Don Tomas Urrea, the wild and rich owner of a vast ranch in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. She has no idea that Huila, the elderly healer who takes Teresita under her wing, knows secrets about her destiny. And she has no idea that soon all of Mexico will rise in revolution, crying out her name.” “When Teresita is but a teenager, learning from Huila the way plants can cure the sick and prayer can move the earth, she discovers an even greater gift: she has the power to heal. Her touch, like warm honey, melts pain and suffering. But such a gift can be a burden, too. Before long, the Urrea ranch is crowded with pilgrims and with agents of a Mexican government wary of anything that might threaten its power.” The Hummingbird’s Daughter is the story of a girl coming to terms with her destiny, with the miraculous, and with the power of faith. It is the tale of a father discovering what true love is and a daughter recognizing that sometimes true love requires true sacrifice.

The Hummingbird’s Daughter covers the life of one family, that of Tomás Urrea. While Tomás surely fathers many illegitimate children, Teresita becomes the most famous, being called Saint Teresita, the Saint of Cabora. Hummingbird tells the story of how Teresita is born, comes to be recognized by her father, learns at the side of the curandera Huila and turns into the Saint of Cabora.

I’ve seen reviews that compare Hummingbird to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude. I understand the sentiment, but there are so many major differences that I believe Urrea’s novel is a completely different animal. First, Hummingbird covers only one generation while One Hundred Years covers five. Hummingbird is a traditional novel with the traditional punctuation, especially for dialogue. Finally, while Hummingbird is told from different viewpoints, the story is linear; One Hundred Years is not always linear. This obviously just scratches the surface because One Hundred Years could be discussed at quite some length. Suffice it to say, while I may have had some One Hundred Years expectations when I began Hummingbird, they were quickly dispelled, which is not a bad thing.

The writing is beautiful. There are many sections I marked and later typed at the bottom of my personal review so I could refer to them later. The funniest quotes and stories come from Huila, who, in my opinion, is the best character in the book by far-

“She felt in her apron pockets for her medicine pouch. Everybody knew it was made of leather- man leather, they said, gathered from a rapist’s ball sack. The rumor was that she had collected it herself back in her village of El Jύpare. When one of the pendejos working around her or her girls started to give her grief, she’d pull the awful little warty-looking blackened bag out of her apron pocket and toss it and catch it, toss and catch it, until the man quieted down and started watching. Then she’d say, “Did you have something you wanted to say to me?””

In addition, Urrea has the ability to make you care about characters you have only known for a short while. When Teresita recognizes a severed head bobbing in a bottle of liquid, my heart sank; I am not even sure why. It is one of those moments that stays with you; you may think of it days or weeks later and not know why it continues to haunt you.

The vocabulary is sometimes difficult. I read a lot and one of the side effects is that I have a large vocabulary. In spite of that, I had to look words up frequently because they referred to things that are cultural or time specific. Usually, the reader is able to figure out the meaning with the help of context, but there were many instances that context did not help at all, and I am Mexican. There is also a little Spanish and it is not always translated, but even if you don’t look it up, you get the gist of what is being said.

While the book is about a supposed saint and the miracles she is said to have performed, the book is not all pretty flowers. Tomás is far from faithful to his wife; in fact, everybody knows about it, including his wife, who basically turns her head unless directly confronted. It is a brutal time period and setting and things are not always settled in a peaceful manner. Children are mistreated. And the list goes on. Hummingbird does not dwell on these subjects, but they are present.

I am sure some may avoid the book because the topic of sainthood may imply long sermons. I assure you, they are not there. In fact, the discussions about religion are intelligent and interesting. Tomás is debatably an atheist; he and Teresita love to debate and have discussions-

“Yes, yes,” he said. “I know who the Holy Mother is.”

“But, of course, you don’t believe.”

He spread his palms at her.

“Read history, my dear. That hill where she appeared, Tepeyac. Aztecs had been ‘seeing’ their own goddess there for years. Tonántzin, wasn’t it? A virgin? The priests just laid one fairy tale over another, and they used the same spot for the same kind of fairy.”

She squinted at him.

“The world of reason must be a lonely place,” she said.

“Father,” she said, leaning forward, “do you not think the Mother of God is older than the Aztecs? Do you not think that, if she were to appear right here, right now, the People would think her a Yaqui or a mestiza? That the Aztecs could only understand her as an Aztec figure? How would they know anything other than Aztec religion?”

Touché,” he said.

This was a good book. I laughed and cried. I purchased my own hardback copy. That in itself should tell you all you need to know about what I think of The Hummingbird’s Daughter.

Reviewed by Christina

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