Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The Great American Read Quest Continues with Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya Book Review and Thoughts

My quest to read as many of the 100 books on The Great American Read list continues with Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya, which is a book that was originally written in 1972 and at one time was banned in several U.S. states.

I grabbed a copy from my local library. My copy was the 1999 edition and truth be told it was an absolute wreck. It was filled with scribbles, underlined words and rips. I'm definitely going to bring the condition of this book to the attention of the librarian. They might want to purchase a replacement copy. In any event, below is my book review and thoughts. 

Wreck of a Book from the Local Library

Bless Me, Ultima follows the life, culture and family of six-year-old Antonio (Tony) Marez and picks up immediately before Ultima comes to stay with the Marez family. Ultima follows the ways of the curandera, aka shaman healer, and teaches Tony many mystical things. Along the way, hardship, strife, violence, death and disaster strike several of the book’s characters.

As stated, I’ve decided to make my way through the PBS Great American Read book list and chose Bless Me, Ultima because it intrigued me and enticed me, and because my family is from Mexico. There are far too few books written by Chicanos and this one had seemed to ruffle enough feathers to cause it to be banned at one time. I wanted to know why and I can only surmise the reasons.

There is a LOT of violence in this book. In my opinion, Antonio’s schoolmates behaved more like animals than like children. There seems to be little parental/adult influence going on. For example, Tony is viciously pummeled by a gang of his “friends” just prior to entering the church to receive his first holy communion and he simply gets up, brushes himself off and goes about his business. No one notices? No broken ribs after literally being pounced on? In addition to the repeated violence, I also questioned a number of other elements in this “children’s book”. Prostitution in a children’s book just didn’t sit well with me.

Bless Me, Ultima, to me, read like a book that couldn’t decide what genre it wanted to be. Was it a children’s story? Was it written as a YA? Was it fantasy? Were readers really supposed to believe that  the fantastical magical happenings had actually occurred? Were we also to believe that a six year old (what age Tony was by the end of the book wasn’t quite clear since the timeline seemed so muddled) would be capable of having such deep theological meanderings running through his head? I found it highly unlikely that such a young child would come up with the philosophical/religious questions that six (or seven, eight or nine) year old Tony had.

If I’m to be completely honest, I wasn’t at all happy with the way Chicanos were portrayed in this book. Maria Marez’s cries of “Ave Maria Purisima” at the drop of a hat were overdone. For the most part, the characters were depicted as uneducated, ignorant and superstitious. They were supposed to be devout Catholics, but they turned to mysticism and magic much more often than they turned to God. 

Readers should know that this book contains a great deal of Spanish that is not translated. It’s fine to have characters using traditional dialect, but it would have been so much better if the author would have inserted the translations here and there so that non-Spanish speakers could understand. Admittedly, my Spanish is awful. I feel I missed out on a lot of the dialogue because of this… although I was painfully aware of the repeated swearing throughout the book.

There are so many other things I took issue with in Bless Me, Ultima, but I don’t intend to turn a book review into an essay/thesis. I’m sad that I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I’d expected I would, but I honestly felt let down in the end.

2 of 5 Stars, Susan Barton, DIY Mom Blog

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