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Monday, September 1, 2014

Kathleen Alcalá

At a glance
Spirits of the Ordinary
by Kathleen Alcalá

Harvest Books
256 pages, $$13
paperback

First novels don't tend to win awards. But Kathleen Alcalá's did.

"Spirits of the Ordinary" won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award in 1998. And that is one of the reasons why we've chosen the Seattle-based author's book as the July read for The Spokesman-Review Book Club.

But it's hardly the only reason.

Much of Northwest literature, which is what the SR Book Club emphasizes, involves the Northwest itself. Alcalá's novel, the first of a trilogy, is set in deserts of northern Mexico.

And it benefits us all to learn about other countries, other cultures, especially those that border - and often mirror - our own.

The daughter of Mexican natives, Alcalá knows the territory she writes about well. Though she grew up in Southern California, she and her family (she has two sisters) spent two weeks every summer visiting cousins in Chihuahua, Mexico.

It was during these vacations that Alcalá, a graduate of Stanford University who moved to Seattle in 1983 to study creative writing at the University of Washington, learned about the culture of her mother.

In doing so, she familiarized herself with the blend of Judiasm and native religions practiced by her mother's ancestors that play such a part in "Spirits of the Ordinary."

"The indigenous impulse to accept foreign religions and incorporate them into existing practice is due to the fact that the indigenous, for some reason, seem to understand that this is merely a partial view of the whole," Alcalá said in a 2003 interview with the online magazine American Center for Artists (www.americanartists.org) . "I would have to study for the rest of my life to really understand these ideas, but I tried to incorporate them into the actions and motivations of the characters in 'Spirits of the Ordinary.' "

Set in the late 1800s, the novel, which carries the subtitle "A Tale of Casas Grandes," involves three generations of a family of differing faiths and life interests. Though Zacarías Caravajál and his wife Estela stand at the center, the story is told from multiple points of view.

Zacarías is a man who has turned his back both on the Jewish religion practiced secretly by his parents and his own family, preferring to prospect for gold in the mountains. In the process, he becomes obsessed with the indigenous population of the Casas Grandes cliff dwellings.

The Catholic Estela can't understand her husband's refusal to take an ordinary job, especially the one that has been offered by her father. In response, she declares herself a free woman, and her subsequent affair with an army officer shocks the rest of the village.

Zacarías' parents, Julio and Mariana, keep their Judiasm secret, fearful of the history of prejudice and violence that long have been directed toward those of their faith. He studies ancient texts, while she still suffers from a long ago act of horror.

Other characters include a widow named Magdalena O'Connell , Estela's young brother and sister and Estela and Jacarias' own pregnant unmarried daughter.

"In the tradition of Latin American literary fabulism, Alcalá's seductive writing mixes fatalism and hope, logic and fantasy, to create moral, emotional and political complexities," wrote a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. "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."

"(T)he novel is unevenly successful in capturing the inner lives of these struggling people," wrote reviewer Laurel Graeber for the New York Times Book Review. "But it is testimony to Alcalá's vivid talents as a storyteller, and to the mystical allure of the threads of magic realism that run through her narrative, that we come to care about many of her characters, and to wonder what destinies await them in her next book."

That next book, 1998's "The Flower in the Skull" (Harvest Books, 192 pages, $14 paper) was followed in 2000 by the trilogy's final chapter, "Treasures in Heaven" (Northwestern University Press, 224 pages, $15.95 paper).

But you need to start Alcalá's extended tale somewhere. And since "Spirits of the Ordinary" is the first of the three, it's as good a place as any.

Return to Book Club Home  //  Contact Dan Webster