I just finished reading Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya. To be truthful, this was the second time since I read it decades ago. At the first reading, I remember being equally confused and amazed by this story. After so much time, I thought I would read it again and see if a more mature me would understand it better. The book is typically described as a coming-of-age tale, but it that is all you expect, you too will be confused. It is much more than that.
This is a book of contradictions written in a brutally honest way. It’s a tale of conflict and cooperation. Catholicism contrasts and merges and divides once again from Paganism as the children learn about religion; they question sin, especially heaven and hell, and ask deeply philosophical questions. Is healing curenderismo or brujerio? Which people are “good” and which fit the church’s definition of “good?” Respect for the Earth’s mysteries and medicines compete against the desire to lead a good Catholic life and gain God’s forgiveness. As people are pulled in different directions, release from sin is weighed and judged in the scales of love and hate, revenge and forgiveness, good and evil.
All of this is glimpsed through the rich culture of a time and a region that might no longer exist. This book takes place during the final years of World War II in New Mexico. But the people of the book know that the history of that land remains in their lineage; it is merged even as it is divided and transformed. Reading of the father’s adjustment from life as a cowboy to married life in town, I could not help but think of the vastness of that land before boundaries were devised and border crossings were built. The father mourns because he experienced the time when the prairie stretched into the desert, walled only by towering rocks, and rarely spotted by towns. Yet, within these pages, the more important separations were between people due to the origins and principles of their parents or grandparents. Did they come from the plains or the town? Were they friends or relatives? Catholic? God fearing?
During the period in the book, the decisions based on beliefs and the qualities inherited from their parents separate and link the individuals in new ways. Anaya’s words paint a picture of friendship, despair, longing, poverty, decency, and righteousness, and always love against the backdrop of a vibrant extended family. The ancestral blood brings urges, responsibilities, and choices. Altruism, kindness and humanity are found and lost as people struggle to rise in the wake of tragedy, anger, selfishness, and the consequences of their raw desires; actions judged as immoral or disreputable. What brings honor or dishonor?
As I wrote before: an intense book. Just as the seen and unseen exist together in our world, the natural and supernatural exist inside the book. It brims with mythology, shamanic dreams, and portents. It is full of life. The book shines a light on a living culture, at once shifting and unchangeable, and the individuals who live within it. They are full of mistakes, biases, strength, weaknesses, and humanity. The story is well worth the time to read and understand.