Dominican Republic has been through umpteen rulers since its initial independence from Spain. It was conquered by the neighbours at Haiti, fought independence and became a colony of Spain for the second time, got independence again in 1865, only to be ruled by various dictators ( Trujillo being the last and longest). Into this chaos is the patriotic poems of Urena, written under a pseudonym ( the secret code between the daughter and the seperated father) comes in, which become a rage among the people. The identity of Herminia revealed and Salome Uruna became the name of the household. Her influence did not diminish, even after the independence and a home rule was established. She was named as the national poet. Soon she marry the young dynamic Pancho , who is nine years younger to her ( member of the positivist movement) , who had fallen for her poems and wsa instrumental in getting her poems published under the auspices of 'Friends of the Nation'. The marriage lasted almost two decade wsan't a smooth ride. With Pancho constantly on the wrong side of the rulers, trying to establish the education system with his mentor and associating with various factions in the political power, had to live a life of being in exile or on look out. He manages to get out of the country on a scholarship to Paris, to pursue his study in medicine, while Salome takes charge of the upliftment of the education system opening the first school for girls. The life wsa on a dark side, with the ever demanding husband from Paris, and the news of his closeness with a French women coupled with her own deterioration of health owing to consumption ( as it was called for tuberculosis). Return of Pancho did not help things better, as the strain in the relationship and the physical condition worsen. Against the wishes of the doctors, Salome gets pregnant again with Camila, following whose birth signalled the eminent death of the once famous poet of the nation.
On the other side of the story, Camila herself is fighting the thought of her being the reason for her mothers untimely death. Her not so good relationship with her stepmother ( the nurse-assistant to Salome during her last years, whom Pancho marries soon after his wife's death), living in exile in Cuba and in the US, her life as an independent woman against constantly changing world around her were make her an interesting person. Her more than close relationship with an American Marion ( whom she taught Spanish during her initial days at the Vassar College), which oscillated between staying together and seperation at regular intervals. During 1960, she decided to retire from her high paying job and life in US, to come back to Cuba to help the new regime to establish the education system. Camila's detachment is with the countries she live in ( she refuses to stay in a decent accommodation, preferring to the attic ; not wanting to be part of the US culturally, deciding to return to Cuba before coming back to her country of birth towards the end of her life) , with the people she has relationship ( Marion , long lasting friend , the painter in Cuba, the White house attendant) , her family ( with her stepmother, her father , the siblings at various parts of the world) and herself ( with the self abandoning way of life).
While the narration is on the mother and daughter, the novel covers the entire family of Urena's ; mother a famous writer, father, the President of the country ( albeit for 6 months) , a famous brother Pedro Henríquez Ureña ( A writer , critic ), daughter educationist and professor. This also covers various countries, Dominican Republic, Cuba ( in exile), France, Mexico, Argentina and US.
To write fiction based on real life people are challenging. On one hand , it has to do justice to the real events and personalities and on the other, it should satisfy the needs of fiction writing. One does not feel bogged down with the historical element and aspect while reading this book, nor does the characters come out and glorify themselves. Interestingly constructed, with one life progresses from childhood and the other from the retirement towards the childhood in reverse chronological order. The history of a turbulent country through the eyes of a poet and a scholar, looking from the feminine angle.
Beautifully written, introspective journey of two celebrated women of Dominican Republic.
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill