REVIEW: Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars, Genre: Fiction, Pages: 277, Level: Easy

Book Description from Barnes & Noble:

“Exquisite prose and wondrous storytelling have helped make Rudolfo Anaya the father of Chicano literature in English. Indeed, Anaya’s tales fairly shimmer with the haunting beauty and richness of his culture. The winner of the Pen Center West Award for Fiction for his unforgettable novel Alburquerque, Anaya is perhaps best loved for his classic bestseller, Bless Me, Ultima… Antonio Marez is six years old when Ultima comes to stay with his family in New Mexico. She is a curandera, one who cures with herbs and magic. Under her wise wing, Tony will probe the family ties that bind and rend him, and he will discover himself in the magical secrets of the pagan past-a mythic legacy as palpable as the Catholicism of Latin America. And at each life turn there is Ultima, who delivered Tony into the world…and will nurture the birth of his soul.”

Bless Me, Ultima is the story of a little boy coming of age and learning about the mysteries of the world.

Antonio will begin kindergarten soon and Ultima comes to stay with his family. Ultima is a curandera, or someone who practices homeopathic medicine with a few sprinkles of prayer here and there. While historically it was many times mistaken as witchcraft or even magic, most curanderas’ cures can now be found in the natural and organic section of many grocery or specialty stores.

Antonio’s mother, a devout Catholic, wants her son to become a farmer or priest. His father wants him to become a man of the plains. Ultima teaches him about the wonders of the earth and nature, instilling in him a profound respect for their mysteries. A friend introduces him to the pagan god, the Golden Carp.

When a couple of men begin to suffer ailments as a result of spells cast by three young women who practice the dark arts, Antonio witnesses the chain of events set in motion when Ultima’s remedies are successful where the Church’s are not. The cures cause a reversal of the curse and the evil sisters now begin to suffer their own physical maladies which increase in severity over time. Blaming Ultima, their father vows revenge upon her.

In light of Ultima’s success and the lack of communication from God, even after his first communion, Antonio begins to wonder if Ultima’s beliefs, from which God seems strangely absent, are his calling instead of the priesthood.

While the God versus nature plot is front and center of Bless Me, Ultima, there is quite a bit more to the novel. Anaya portrays the struggle between two parents, battling for the future of each child, wanting them to take the path of their respective family. He shows the heartache of a mother, whose sons leave home, and the heartbreak of a father when he finally accepts that his sons do not want to be like him. Interestingly, we also see how the daughters take a backseat and even though they are loved, cherished and protected, they are not as important as the sons, even to the adult female family members.

Bless Me, Ultima has been quite controversial in certain areas of the United States; in fact it was banned in some schools and even burned in one town. The reason for this is due to the doubts Antonio has about God and religion, the sometimes historical reputation of curanderas as witches and the introduction of the pagan god, the golden carp.

I have already explained what a curandera is.

The questioning of God and religion is extremely mild. It basically deals with doubts I am confident every believer faces at some point in his or her lifetime, but may be too scared to admit. Why does God allow such suffering in the world? Why isn’t God a forgiving God? Why is God silent? For example-

“Perhaps God was too busy in heaven to worry or care about us.”

While these types of thoughts and questions would have gotten you a death sentence during the Inquisition, today most people understand these doubts in believers as human nature. And remember, we’re talking about a very young boy here.

Then there is the golden carp, which is just an extraordinarily overgrown orange fish whose scales reflect gold when the sun hits it. One of Antonio’s friends shows him the carp and a discussion ensues-

“There are many gods,” Cico whispered, “gods of beauty and magic, gods of the garden, gods in our own backyards- but we go off to foreign countries to find new ones, we reach to the stars to find new ones-”
“Why don’t we tell others of the golden carp?” I asked.
“They would kill him,” Cico whispered. “The god of the church is a jealous god; he cannot live in peace with other gods. He would instruct his priests to kill the golden carp-”
“What if I become a priest, like my mother wants me to-”
“You have to choose, Tony,” Cico said, “you have to choose between the god of the church, or the beauty that is here and now-“

Obviously, the idea of multiple gods is not a Catholic tenet. While the childlike simplicity of the topic is quite beautiful, adults who are believers are more likely to understand the complexities of God and nature, accepting that the two are not mutually exclusive.

I have told you a lot about Bless Me, Ultima, but there is definitely more to the story. I found it to be inspirational and suspenseful. It is a good novel and portrays the Hispanic community of that area and time period well. Some of these traditions even endure today. There is some Spanish in the book and some Hispanic references that are not fully explained, but none will take away from the story for anyone who is not familiar with this culture.

I absolutely recommend this book and hear the movie is quite good. It was a limited release and I am in an area where there are not enough Mexicans to warrant a showing, so I guess I’ll have to wait for the DVD. Bummer.

Reviewed by Christina

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