In her most ambitious work since In the Time of Butterflies, Julia Alvarez tells the story of a woman whose poetry inspired one Caribbean revolution and of her daughter whose dedication to teaching strengthened another. Camila Henriquez Urena is about to retire from her longtime job teaching Spanish at Vassar College. Only now as she sorts through family papers does she begin to know the woman behind the legend of her mother, the revered Salome Urena, who died when Camila was three. In stark contrast to Salome, who became the Dominican Republic's national poet at the age of seventeen, Camila has spent most of her life trying not to offend anybody. Her mother dedicated her life to educating young women to give them voice in their turbulent new nation; Camila has spent her life quietly and anonymously teaching the Spanish pluperfect to upper-class American girls with no notion of revolution, no knowledge of Salome Urena. Now, in 1960, Camila must choose a final destination for herself. Where will she spend the rest of her days? News of the revolution in Cuba mirrors her own internal upheaval. In the process of deciding her future, Camila uncovers the truth of her mother's tragic personal life and, finally, finds a place for her own passion and commitment. Julia Alvarez has won a large and devoted audience by brilliantly illuminating the history of modern Caribbean America through the personal stories of its people. As a Latina, as a poet and novelist, and as a university professor, Julia Alvarez brings her own experience to this exquisite story.
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April 25, 2011
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Excerpt from In the Name of Salome by Julia Alvarez
She stands by the door, a tall, elegant woman with a soft brown color to her skin (southern Italian? a Mediterranean Jew? a light-skinned negro woman who has been allowed to pass by virtue of her advanced degrees?), and reviews the empty rooms that have served as home for the last eighteen years.
Now in the full of June, the attic is hot. Years back, when she earned tenure, the dean offered her a more modern apartment, nearer to the campus. But she refused. She has always loved attics, their secretiveness, their niches and nooks, where those never quite at home in the house can hide. And this one has wonderful light. Shafts of sunlight swarm with dust motes, as if the air were coming alive.
It is time for fresh blood in this old house. On the second floor, right below her, Vivian Lafleur from the Music Department is getting on in years and going a bit deaf, too. Every year the piano gets more fortissimo, her foot heavy on the pedal. Her older sister, Dot, has already retired from Admissions and moved in with her "baby" sister. "Come quickly, Viv," she sometimes hollers from her bedroom. The music stops. Could this be it for Dot? On the ground floor, Florence from History has been called back from her retirement after the young medievalist from Yale stumbled into a manhole and broke her ankle. "I'm so grateful." Flo cornered her one day downstairs by their mailboxes. "I was beginning to go batty in that cottage in Maine."
She herself is worried about the emptiness that lies ahead. Childless and motherless, she is a bead unstrung from the necklace of the generations. All she leaves behind here are a few close colleagues, also about to retire, and her students, those young immortals with, she hopes, the Spanish subjunctive filed away in their heads.
She must not let herself get morbid. It is 1960. In Cuba, Castro and his bearded boys are saying alarming, wonderful things about the new patria they are creating. The Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet last year on a yak with the Chinese at his heels, has issued a statement: One must love one's enemies, or else all is lost. (But you have lost everything, she thinks.) This winter she read of an expedition to Antarctica led by Vivian Fuchs. Sir Vivian has asked the world to agree not to dump its nuclear waste there. (Why dump it anywhere? Camila wonders.) But these are positive signs, she reminds herself, positive signs. It is not a new habit of hers: these efforts to rouse herself from a depressive turn of mind she inherited from her mother. Of course, sometimes the bigger picture is rather grim. So? Use your subjunctive (she reminds herself). Make a wish. Contrary to possibility, contrary to fact.
Most of her things have already been sent ahead, several trunks and boxes, years of accumulation, sorted with her friend Marion's help, down to the essentials. She is taking only her suitcase and the trunk of her mother's papers and poems carried down just now by the school grounds crew to the waiting car. To think that only a few months ago, she was consulting those poems for signs! She smiles at the easy gimmick she thought would resolve the big question in her life. Now, playfully, she imagines the many lives she has lived as captioned by the title of one or another of her mother's poems. How should this new life be titled? "Faith in the Future"? "The Arrival of Winter"? or (why not?) "Love and Yearning"?
The horn honks again. It will probably be titled "Ruins" if she doesn't get downstairs soon! Marion is impatient to go, red-faced and swearing, jerking the steering wheel as she turns the car around. "Lady driver," one of the men mutters under his breath.
Marion and Les, her new husband, have flown up to help with the move. (Marion's companion of ten years finally proposed marriage.) Now the two best friends will head down to Florida in a rental car. Les has already been deposited (Marion's verb) in New Hampshire at his daughter's door, so that Marion and Camila can have this last trip together. All the way down to Baltimore and Jacksonville and on to Key West and her ferry to Havana, Marion will try talking her out of her plans.
"Everyone who is anyone is getting out."
"Well then, I'll have no problem. 'I'm Nobody--Who are you?'" She loves to quote Miss Dickinson, whose home she once visited, whose fierce talent reminds her of her own mother's. Emily Dickinson is to the United States of America as Salome Urena is to the Dominican Republic--something like that. One of her nieces--is it Lupe?--loves those analogies in the game books Camila takes them when she goes to visit. But she herself always feels nervous when she is asked to put things exactly where they belong. Look at my life, she thinks, hither and yon, hither and yon.
But now--"Shall we have a drumroll, shall we blow the trumpet, and pipe a ditty on the flute?" Marion teases--she is heading home, or as close to home as she can get. Trujillo has made her own country an impossible choice. Perhaps it will all turn out well, perhaps, perhaps.
"You are not nobody, Camila," her friend scolds. "Don't be modest now!" Marion loves to brag. She is from the midwestern part of the country, and so she is easily impressed by somebodies, especially when they come from either coast or from foreign countries. ("Camila's mother was a famous poet." "Her father was president." "Her brother was the Norton Lecturer at Harvard.") Perhaps Marion thinks that such reflected importance will stem the tide of prejudice that often falls on the foreign and colored in this country. She should know better. How can Marion forget the cross burning on her front lawn that long ago summer Camila visited the Reed family in North Dakota?
"You need a hand with anything else, Miss Henry?" one of the burly janitorial crew calls up. Her name is HenrIquez ("accent on the i"), she has told them more than once, and they have repeated her name slowly, but the next time she requires their assistance, they have forgotten. Miss Henry, Miss Henriette.
Beyond them on College Street, in their pastel shirtwaist dresses, a group of young graduates hurries by on the way to some last gathering. They look like blossoms released from their stems.
One of them turns suddenly, a hand at her brow, shielding her eyes from the sun, a flag of red hair. "Hasta luego, Profesora," she calls out to the flashing attic windows.
She couldn't possibly see me, the professor is thinking. I am already gone from this place.
Before she leaves, she makes the sign of the cross--an old habit she has not been able to shake since her mother's death sixty-three years ago.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of my mother, SalomE.
Her aunt Ramona, her mother's only sister, taught her to do this. Dear old Mon, round and brown with a knot of black hair on top of her head, a Dominican Buddha but with none of the bodhisattva's calm. Mon was more superstitious than religious and more cranky than anything else. Back then, it was a habit to kiss each parent's hand and ask their blessing before leaving the house. La bendicion, Mama. La bendicion, Papa.
(The American girls made faces in class when she told them about this old tradition. "What a drag," the plump, freckled girl from Cooperstown said, lifting one corner of her mouth as if the old-world practice had a bad smell.)
When her mother died, Mon thought up this way for her to ask for SalomE's blessing. To summon strength from a fading memory that every year became less and less real until all that was left of her mother was the story of her mother.
Sometimes the phrase is part prayer, part curse--as now when she hears the loud, rude honk from down below and mutters it under her breath. Marion will be the death of Dot yet. The two sisters have always been kind to their quiet upstairs neighbor, that condescending kindness of natives toward foreigners who are not frightening. Dot knits her awful matching accessories every winter that she must wear once in a while to show her appreciation.
Another loud honk, then the call, "Hey Cam! Did you have a coronary up there or what?" She peers down from the back window and waves to her friend that she will be right down. Marion stands beside her rental car, a Caribe turquoise Oldsmobile. They have debated the color. (She is from the Caribbean, and she has never seen that color blue, she argues. But the manual Marion whipped out from the glove compartment did say Caribe turquoise.) With her hands at her hips, her baggy trousers, and paisley scarf tied around her neck (can she really be from North Dakota?), Marion could be the drama coach at the college, barking at the girls up on the stage. Years of teaching physical education have kept Marion fit and trim, and her hardy midwestern genes have done the rest. She is warm-hearted and showy, kicking up a storm wherever she goes. "Are you Spanish, too?" people often ask, and with her dark hair and bright eyes Marion could pass, though her skin is so pale that Camila's father often worried that she might be anemic or consumptive.
They have lived through so much, some of which is best left buried in the past, especially now that Marion is a respectable married lady. ("I don't know about the respectable," Marion laughs.) In her politics, however, Marion is as conservative as her recently acquired husband, Lesley Richards III, whose perennial tan gives him a shellacked look, as if he were being preserved for posterity. He is rich and alcoholic and riddled with ailments.
She should not think so unkindly.
By the door hangs the chart her student helper drew up when they were sorting through the family trunks. Camila found the scrap of paper when she was cleaning up, no doubt inadvertently left behind. She was so amused by this young girl's vision of her life, she tacked it up on her bulletin board. She considers taking it down, then decides to leave this curious memento for the next tenant to ponder.
The car honks again, another shout of summons.
It will be a long ride to Florida. She has measured the route on the large atlas at the library using her fingers to figure out the distance. Each finger a day on the road. Five fingers, a handful, with Marion singing old campfire songs and driving too fast, especially with SalomE's trunk tied to the roof of the car. On the passenger's side, Camila clutches the arm loop by the door and hopes that that they don't run into a rainstorm, hopes and prays that Marion will not try to talk her out of her decision by reminding her that she is sixty-six, alone, and should be thinking about her pension, should be thinking about her future, should be thinking about moving into a comfy bungalow just down the road from Marion, at least until things settle down at home in those hot-tempered little islands.
"In the name of my mother, SalomE," she says to herself again. She needs all the help she can get here at the end of her life in the United States.
Somewhere past Trenton, New Jersey, to keep her restless friend from further distractions ("Light me a cigarette, will you?" "Any more of those chips left?" "I sure could use a soda!"), she offers: "Shall I tell you why I have decided to go back?" Marion has been pestering Camila ever since she arrived a few days ago to help her friend pack. "But why? Why? That's what I want to know. What do you hope to accomplish with a bunch of ill-mannered, unshaven, unwashed guerrillas running a country?"
Purposely, she believes, Marion mispronounces the word so it sounds like gorillas. "Guerrillas," Camila corrects, rattling the r's.
She has been afraid she will sound foolish if she explains how just once before her life is over, she would like to give herself completely to something--yes, like her mother. Friends would worry that she had lost her wits, too much sugar in her blood, her cataracts blurring all levels of her vision. And Marion's disapproval would be the worst of all, for she would not only disagree with Camila's choice, she would try to save her.
Marion has turned to face her. Briefly, the car weaves into the left lane. A honk from an oncoming car startles Marion, and she pulls back over just in time.
Camila takes a deep breath. Perhaps the future will be over sooner than she thinks.
"I'm all ears," Marion says when they have both recovered.
Camila's heart is still beating wildly--one of those bats that sometimes gets trapped in her attic apartment so that she has to call the grounds crew to come get it out. "I have to go back a ways," she explains. "I have to start with SalomE."
"Can I confess something?" Marion asks, not a real question, as she does not wait for Camila to answer back. "Please don't get your feelings hurt, but I honestly don't think I would ever have heard of your mother unless I had met you."
She's not surprised. Americans don't interest themselves in the heroes and heroines of minor countries until someone makes a movie about them.
Up ahead a man on a billboard is smoking a cigarette; behind him a herd of cattle waits until he finishes it.
"So, what's the story?" Marion wants to know.
"As I said, I'll have to start with my mother, which means at the birth of la patria, since they were both born about the same time." Her voice sounds strangely her own and not her own. All those years in the classroom. Her half brother Rodolfo calls it her teacher's handicap, how she vanishes into whatever she's teaching. She's done it all her life. Long before she stepped into a classroom, she indulged this habit of erasing herself, of turning herself into the third person, a minor character, the best friend (or daughter!) of the dying first-person hero or heroine. Her mission in life--
after the curtain falls--to tell the story of the great ones who have passed on.
But Marion is not going to indulge her. Camila has not gotten past the first few years of SalomE's life and the wars of independence when her friend interrupts. "I thought you were finally going to talk about yourself, Camila."
"I am talking about myself," she says--and waits until they have passed a large moving van, a sailing ship afloat on its aluminum sides--before she begins again.
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