Thursday, August 07, 2008

The Hummingbird's Daughter

The Hummingbird's Daughter
by Luis Alberto Urrea

(Little, Brown and Company / 978-0-316-74546-8 /
0-316-74546-4 / May 2005 / 512 pages / $24.95)

Reviewed by Dr. Al Past for PODBRAM

The following review is of one of Dr. Past's favorite books. The cover you see here is on the original hardback published in 2005, currently available at Amazon for $16.47. The Amazon link above is to the 2006 paperback version with a different cover and a slightly higher page count for $10.19.

Among the many outstanding qualities of Luis Urrea's magnificent novel, The Hummingbird's Daughter, is that the story is substantially true. It is based on the historical record of his great aunt Teresa Urrea. The dialog and the personalities have been reconstructed, but anyone who cares to research the matter as I have will learn that the incredible life of the Hummingbird's daughter, Teresita Urrea, is accurately depicted.

Born out of wedlock to an illiterate Indian mother, she has no idea that her father is Don Tomás Urrea, rich landowner and freethinker in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. At about age six she is taken under the tutelage of an elderly Indian healer named Huila, whose name means “hummingbird” in the Indian language. From her, Teresita learns the uses of healing plants and prayers and discovers an even greater gift: she actually has the power to heal by her touch.

This causes problems. The ranch becomes crowded with thousands of pilgrims bearing the most pitiful ailments and afflictions, and the Mexican government, watchful to suppress any threats to its power, is suspicious of her growing fame. The shattering climax of the story calls that old cliché to mind: you can't make this stuff up. It wasn't! Unbelievable as it is, it happened.

The Hummingbird's Daughter is the story of a girl coming to terms with her destiny, with the power of faith and miracles, and with a father's and daughter's discovery of what love is and the sacrifices it sometimes requires.

The book is densely populated with cowboys, outlaws, wild Indians, men who drink too much, cantina beauties, mercy and cruelty, bravery and cowardice, and nature at its rawest. There are a fair number of Spanish words, untranslated, but these will not detract from the enjoyment for those who do not care to look them up. To add a historical note, the story is a wonderful snapshot of revolutionary Mexico along the American border.

Finally, the prose style is marvelously poetic: easy to read, but magically evoking the character of Mexico in all its color and contradictions. The description of the various ways Mexicans prepare coffee as the sun dawns gradually across the country could be excerpted as a fine poem all by itself. I have read the book three times, and in its own way it has influenced my writing as much as Huckleberry Finn, with which it shares many qualities. I even bought a second copy to lend, so as not to risk my own, precious, annotated copy. I grew up in El Paso. Teresita lived there briefly, yet I had never heard of her. This is a shame: her story and this book deserve to be better known.

See Also: Dr. Past's B&N Review
A Brief Biography of the Author
The Author in His Own Words
The Author's Daily Blog

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