Guernica

( 62 )

Overview

“Boling threads his way through the stories of his many characters with humor, compassion and rich details of Basque tradition…Moving.”—Washington Post Book World

In 1935, Miguel Navarro finds himself on the wrong side of the Spanish Nationalists, so he flees to Guernica, the most ancient town of the Basque region. In the midst of this idyllic, isolated bastion of democratic values, Miguel finds more than a new life—he finds a love that not ...

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Guernica

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Overview

“Boling threads his way through the stories of his many characters with humor, compassion and rich details of Basque tradition…Moving.”—Washington Post Book World

In 1935, Miguel Navarro finds himself on the wrong side of the Spanish Nationalists, so he flees to Guernica, the most ancient town of the Basque region. In the midst of this idyllic, isolated bastion of democratic values, Miguel finds more than a new life—he finds a love that not even war, tragedy or death can destroy.

The bombing of Guernica was a devastating experiment in total warfare by the German Luftwaffe in the run-up to World War II . For the Basques, it was an attack on the soul of their ancient nation. History and fiction merge seamlessly in this beautiful novel about the resilience of family, love, and tradition in the face of hardship.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
In the early 1940s, Pablo Picasso was perhaps the most famous painter in the world, and his presence was a familiar one in the fashionable cafés of Paris's Left Bank. Even the German soldiers who then occupied the city sought him out. When one particular soldier approached him with a postcard-sized reproduction of his famous painting Guernica and asked, "You did this, didn't you?," Picasso saw again the images of torture and death that haunted his dreams and calmly replied, "No. You did."

Boling's debut is a sweeping, epic tale of love, family, and country set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. In 1935, young Miguel Navarro flees his small fishing village for a new start in Guernica. The center of Basque culture and tradition, Guernica stood precipitously at the mouth of hell. In his search for a new life, Miguel knows none of this and seemingly only has eyes for the beautiful Miren. But their love cannot protect them from the German Luftwaffe, which destroys the city, crushes the Basque soul, and enmeshes Miguel and Miren in a tragedy beyond measure.

Meticulously weaving fact and fiction, Guernica is more than a love story or a war novel. It is a reminder and a promise -- of the torment that so many witnessed and of the will to survive that no war could challenge. (Holiday 2008 Selection)
Publishers Weekly

Examining the Spanish Civil War and the town that was famously firebombed by the Germans on the eve of WWII, this multigenerational family saga begins with the three abandoned Ansotegui boys, struggling to survive on the family farm at the end of the 19th century; younger brothers Josepe and Xabier become a fisherman and a priest, respectively, while the eldest, Justo, marries and raises a stunning daughter named Miriam. Charismatic, beautiful and the best jota dancer around, Miriam attracts the attention of Miguel Navarro, who winds up moving them to ill-fated Guernica after a run-in with the Spanish Civil Guard. Meanwhile, in nearby Bilbao, Father Xabier waxes political with real-life future Basque president José Antonio Aguirre, striking up an invaluable friendship. Boling's portrait of the Guernica tragedy is vivid, as is his illustration of the Basque people's oppression; wisely, he sidesteps elaborate political explanations that could slow the family drama. Boling is skillful with characters and dialogue, possessing a great sense of timing and humor, though some historical cameos feel forced (especially Picasso, who pops up throughout), and some plot twists can be seen from quite a long way off. (Sept.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
The 1937 firebombing of the Basque town of Guernica is the central event of this ambitious first novel from Seattle-based journalist Boling. Boling has had the good sense to write under the influence of the Hemingway who gave us A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls, and the result is a moving tale of courage and resilience that celebrates the history of an embattled culture while depicting in persuasive detail the communal and representative experiences of a single extended Basque family. It begins with the Ansotegui brothers, who grow up as shepherding farmers after their widowed father abandons them. Ruled by elder sibling Justo, a patriarch even in adolescence, they go their separate ways: Second son Josepe becomes a fisherman, youngest Xabier a priest. When Spanish rebels foment civil war and undertake to humble the pride of the independent Basques, the Ansoteguis are drawn back into conflict and choice, most crucially affecting Justo's beautiful daughter Miren and her husband Miguel (a fishing companion of Josepe's), a beautiful blind woman (Alaia) whom Miren befriends and-most surprisingly-Father Xabier, drawn into politics as a consequence of friendship with his communicant Aguirre, president of the Basque nation. Boling juxtaposes their ordeals with German preparations for the bombing (a "test" of Nazi firepower as much as an act of solidarity with Franco's forces), and after the carnage (horrifically described in searing narrative fragments), the experiences of relief workers, Allied pilots and various others. The Ansoteguis' indomitable will to live is memorably symbolized by the beloved Tree of Guernica-a commanding image shown in Pablo Picasso's eponymous mural,whose conception and creation are also part of this absorbing story. Except for a few too many popular-fiction cliches (e.g., its women are quite improbably gorgeous and valiant), this is a very good novel indeed-and a crucial reminder that genocidal folly is never as far away from us as we might wish. Agent: Kim Witherspoon/InkWell Management
From the Publisher
"A first-class romance.... That Boling's first effort has brought so many notable characters to life in such realistic settings is praiseworthy." —-Los Angeles Times
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781596916371
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
  • Publication date: 9/1/2009
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 532,896
  • Product dimensions: 5.52 (w) x 8.32 (h) x 1.06 (d)

Meet the Author

Dave Boling is a journalist living in the Seattle area.

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First Chapter

CHAPTER 1

Baby Xabier cried from his crib, and when Angeles didn’t stir, Pascual Ansotegui touched a match to the oil lamp on the wall and retrieved the newborn for his feeding.

“Kuttuna, it’s time,” he whispered, careful not to disturb their sons sleeping in the next room. But within a moment, Pascual’s scream shook Justo and little Josepe from their beds. In the smoky lamplight, Pascual saw Angeles’s sheet-white face and a dark stain on the bedding.

Justo and Josepe scrambled into their parents’ room and found baby Xabier wailing on the floor. Justo picked up his little brother and returned him to the cradle. Josepe fought to pull himself onto the bed to be with his mother but only managed to claw the bloody blanket toward his face. Justo pulled him back and whispered to him. The three stood at the bedside as a corrosive grief began to hollow out Pascual Ansotegui.

Angeles had presented him a succession of three robust sons in a span of four years. Almost from the moment she recovered from the delivery of one, she was once again carrying the next. The men in the village laughed at Pascual’s appetites, and he took a dash of pride in their jokes. Good-natured, accommodating, and fertile as the estuarial plain on which they lived, Angeles birthed without complications. But a few days after the uneventful appearance of her third son, she simply failed to awaken. Pascual was left with two tots, a newborn, and a harness of guilt.

The boys grew together in a hyperactive litter, roiling and wrestling and challenging one another from predawn awakenings until their nightly collapse, often not in their beds but sprawled at odd angles wherever their energy randomly expired. The increasingly absent Pascual kept them fed, a minimal challenge on a thriving farm, but they otherwise operated on their own initiative and imagination.

Four males now lived at Errotabarri, the Ansotegui family farm, with no maternal or feminine infl uence past the few reminders of Angeles Ansotegui’s brief life, a comb-and-brush set on her dresser, a few dresses in the closet, and a ruffl ed fl oral-print apron that Pascual Ansotegui now wore while cooking.

As Pascual withdrew, physically and emotionally, the boys gradually took over the farm. Even young boys understand that chickens need feed and eggs must be collected, so they completed these tasks without recognizing them as work. Even young boys understand that stock need food for the winter, so they learned to swing the scythe through the musky alfalfa grass and fork the hay high against the tall spindle that supported the stack.

When one of them came across a rotten egg, it became ammunition for an ambush of an unsuspecting brother. They dived together into the cut grass before collecting it. They hid in the haystacks before spreading it for the stock. They rode the cows bareback before they milked them. Piles of cordwood were forts before they became fuel for the hearth. Every chore was a contest: Who could throw the pitchfork farthest? Who could run fastest to the well? Who could carry the most water?

Because each action was a competition or game, there was rarely a division of labor; the three shared each job and moved in unison to the next. Virtual orphans, they were nonetheless content, and the farm operated in a surprisingly efficient atmosphere of playful mayhem.

But at times even the instincts of farm boys could not lead them to anticipate threats to stock or crops. For three boys easily distracted by the ballistic possibilities of rancid eggs, surprises arose.

Had Pascual Ansotegui been conscious of the passing of the seasons, he would have reminded his sons that the ewes about to lamb in the spring needed the protection of the shed. But in the fi rst warm afternoons of spring, the shed was merely a wall for young boys playing pelota. When Xabier clumsily sent the ball onto the roof and it wedged between cracked tiles, Justo retrieved the ladder and scaled the canted shed, placing one foot dramatically on the peak, as if he had reached the summit of Mount Oiz. Josepe sensed in his posture the potential for a new game.

“How about you get to stay up there until one of us hits you with sheep shit?” Josepe said, having retrieved several dried dung biscuits.

As he took aim at his brother, Josepe spotted a sliver of darkness banking tight circles above the hillside. “Justo, Justo, an eagle—are there lambs out there?” Josepe screamed.

“Get the gun!” Justo yelled, leaping down onto a bale and rolling off onto his feet.

Pascual Ansotegui’s rifle was old before the turn of the century and the boys had never seen it fired. At thirteen, Justo was as strong as some of the men in the village, but Pascual had never taught him how to shoot. Josepe could hardly heft the iron weapon off the pegs in the shed. He dragged it to his brother with both hands at the end of the barrel, the butt bouncing along the ground.

Justo took it from him, raised it to his shoulder, and waved the heavy barrel in the direction of the diving eagle. Xabier knelt in front of him and grabbed the stock with both hands, trying to buttress his big brother’s hold.

“Shoot him, Justo!” Josepe screamed. “Shoot him!”

With the rifle butt inches from his shoulder, Justo pulled the trigger. The shot exploded in the barrel, and the recoil thrust Justo to the ground, bleeding from the side of his head. Xabier flattened out beside him, screaming from the noise. The shot did not even startle the eagle, which was now applying a lethal clench of its talons into the neck of a tiny, still-wet lamb.

With Justo and Xabier down, Josepe charged. Before he could reach it, the eagle extended its wings, hammered them several times into the ground, and lifted off on a downhill swoop just over Josepe’s head.

Justo fought his way uphill to Josepe. Xabier, crying to the point of breathlessness, face freckled with his brother’s blood, ran in sprints and tumbles to a neighbor’s house for help.

“Look for other newborns, and let’s get the ewes into the shed!” Justo shouted, regaining control. They saw no other lambs that were vulnerable, and they both herded the oblivious mother ewe, still dragging birth tissue, into the shed.

The neighbors held Xabier to calm him. But what did he expect them to do? Where was his father, after all? “Boys your age shouldn’t deal with these matters and certainly shouldn’t be shooting rifles; it’s a good thing none of our stock was harmed,” they said. He couldn’t hear them over the painful ringing of his ears but read rejection in their faces.

“Well . . . fine!” Xabier yelled, breaking away to rejoin his brothers.

The shaken boys gathered in the shed and clutched the ewe, which was bothered not by the loss of its offspring, a development it had already forgotten, but by the fierce embraces of these boys, one of whom was bleeding all over her wool.

When Pascual Ansotegui returned that eve ning, the boys stood in a line at the door, in descending order of age, and Justo briefed his father on the events. Pascual nodded. Justo and Josepe accepted his minimal response. Xabier, though, flared with indignation.

“Where were you?” yelled Xabier, a spindle-thin nine-year-old in third-hand overalls stained with blood.

Pascual stared without comment.

Xabier repeated the question.

“I was gone,” the father said.

“I know you were gone; you’re always gone,” Xabier said. “We’d get along just as well if you never came back.”

Pascual tilted his head, as if this would bring his youngest into clearer focus. He then turned away, pulled the floral apron from its peg on the hearth, and began to make dinner.

Justo knew early that he, as the eldest, would someday assume sole control of Errotabarri, and his siblings understood that they would inevitably find work elsewhere. If inequitable to the younger children, the pattern assured survival of the baserri culture. Justo Ansotegui would claim his birthright and become the latest in the chain of stewards of the land that extended back to times when their ancestors painted animals onto walls in the nearby Santimamiñe caves.

Bequesting the farm to the eldest carried no guarantees. He who inherits the farm may never leave to discover other opportunities, to go to sea, perhaps, or to a city like Bilbao. But to run the baserri was to shepherd the family trust, Justo believed. Still, he expected a period of apprenticeship to learn. For another year or so after the lamb’s slaughter, Pascual Ansotegui unenthusiastically attended mass each morning, mouthing the responses. He returned to church to pray in silence again in the eve ning, wandering unseen in between. Eventually, he stopped attending mass, and one day he drifted off.

It took several days before Justo realized his father had gone missing. He alerted the neighbors, and small groups searched the hillsides. When no evidence of death or life surfaced, the boys assumed that he had been swallowed up by a crevice or a sinkhole, or that he just forgot to stop wandering.

Although the boys loved and missed their father, their affection for him was more out of habit than true sentiment. They noticed little difference in his absence: They still performed the same chores and played the same games. Justo was now in charge.

“Here, this is yours now,” Josepe said to Justo, handing him the ruffled apron.

“Eskerrik asko,” Justo said, thanking his brother. He lifted the strap over his head and tied the worn sash behind his back in solemn ceremony. “Wash up for dinner.”

He had the family baserri to run. He was fifteen.

When they were very young, the boys learned the history of Guernica and of Errotabarri. They learned it from their father, before he drifted off, and from the people of the town who were proud of their heritage. From medieval times, Guernica was a crossroads of the old Roman Way and the Fish and Wine Route that wound through the hills inland from the sea. Intersecting them both was the pilgrims’ route to Santiago de Compostela. For centuries, representatives of the region met under the Guernica oak to shape laws that outlawed torture and unwarranted arrest and granted unprece dented privileges to women. Although aligned with the kingdom of Castile, they maintained their own legal system and demanded that the series of Castilian monarchs from the time of Ferdinand and Isabella come stand, in person, beneath the oak of Guernica and swear to protect the Basque laws. Because the economy of the region hadn’t evolved under the feudal system, the Basques owned their own land and were never divided into sovereigns and serfs, merely farmers, fishermen, and craftsmen, free and independent of any overlord.

A baserri in Biscaya often came to have a name, which sometimes served as a surname for those living there, as if the land and the home were the real ancestors. The home, after all, would outlive the inhabitants and maybe even the family name. They presumed that a well-structured building, like family relationships, genuine love, and one’s reputation, would be timeless if protected and properly maintained.

At the time Justo Ansotegui assumed control of Errotabarri, a thorny hedgerow outlined the lower perimeter of the farm, and a platoon of poplars flanked the northern, windward edge. Crops were cultivated on the southern side of the house, bordered by several rows of fruit trees. Pastureland spread above the home, rising to a patchy stand of burly oaks, cypress, and waxy blue-gray eucalyptus. The trees thinned out just beneath a granite outcrop that marked the upper border of the property.

The house resembled others near Guernica. It required the boys to annually whitewash the stucco sides above a stone-and-mortar base and to restain the oxblood wooden trim and shutters. Each stone-silled window accommodated planter boxes of geraniums, providing dashes of red across both levels and all aspects. Even as a young, single man, Justo sustained these floral touches that had been important to his mother.

As with many a baserri on a hillside, the house was wedged into the slope. The lower floor, with wide double doors on the downhill side, housed the stock in the winter months. The upper floor, with a ground-level door on the uphill side, was home to the family. The housing of cows and sheep in the same building protected the animals from the cold, and they returned the favor by warming the upper level with their rising body heat.

Inside, a large central room held the kitchen, dining, and living areas, with rough-cut oak columns supporting exposed quartersawn rafters. The hearth extended inward from a corner of the kitchen. Seed corn was nailed to the beams to dry, and herbs for cooking and medicine cured in the warmth above the hearth. Interwoven vines of red peppers hung from the support column closest to the kitchen, next to the dangling links of chorizo that lent a heavy garlic scent to the room.

An unknown ancestor had carved the lauburu into the lintel above the house’s main door. This four-headed symbol of their race, like a spinning clover leaf, bracketed their lives, appearing on everything from cradles to tombstones.

Each former master of the land inadvertently bequeathed items to Justo. He still stacked hay on tall wooden spikes that had been carved generations before. And the iron shears he used in the shed had snipped wool from sheep dead a century. Some of the smaller items offered wordless mysteries from the edge of the mantel; there was a small bronze horse with its head reared high and an iron coin bearing unknown symbols.

During Justo’s proprietorship, the apron was likewise memorialized, draped from a nail in the mantel. And before he would pass, the mantel also would support a length of braided human hair so dark that it absorbed light.

Swatting the rump of a reluctant donkey to keep it grinding up the steep trail, Pablo Picasso chuckled when he considered how his friends in Paris would react to the vision of him in such a position. That he would think of them now, here in the Pyrenees, was a symptom of the problem. There had been too much getting in the way of his art in Paris. And this mountain trail to Gósol, with the lovely Fernande on a donkey beside him, was his path away from all that.

It had been all too much talk of art. And when they talked, their art rose from their heads, not their guts, and their paintings went back and forth like day-old conversations.

He didn’t need Paris now; he needed Spain. He needed the people and the heat and the unshakeable feeling of belonging.

Fernande would sit for him now and wouldn’t talk about his painting. She knew better. He had come back to Spain for a short break, come to this quiet town in the mountains, to tear art to pieces, to make it something it hadn’t been, or perhaps something it had been long before. This was a place he could feel art. It came up at him from the dirt and radiated down in waves from the sun. It was time to shatter art and reshape it, as one might do with bright pieces of broken glass.

Justo promised his brothers this: No one would work harder. But even as he made that vow, he conceded to himself that he knew very little of the business of operating a farm. So he began making social visits to neighbors, slipping into the conversations questions about the timing of planting certain crops or tending fruit trees and managing stock. Most neighbors were sympathetic, but they had little time to worry about somebody else’s farm—unless they had a daughter who happened to be his age. Most would consider Justo something well short of handsome, but this boy nonetheless owned his own baserri.

Justo inquired of the neighboring Mendozabels how he might establish hives for bees that would pollinate his fruit trees and provide honey. Mrs. Mendozabel informed him that they would be delighted to help him, that in fact they should all visit over “a full dinner, which you surely don’t get much of at Errotabarri, not the kind that our Magdalena makes every night.” Justo arrived in his work clothes, consumed dinner without conversation beyond that of the baserri, and took little note of Magdalena in her white Sunday dress and the “special pie” she baked for him. He was too busy for Magdalena and all the rest of the Magdalenas who were successively dressed, powdered, and trotted out for his inspection. The dinners were pleasant, though, the information helpful, and yes, it was true, he didn’t bake pies at Errotabarri.

Small farms could not be considered flourishing businesses, but few noticed the poverty on the hillside above Guernica. Families were fed, and whatever was left over was carted to market or traded for those goods they could not produce themselves. Justo envied the neighbors who enjoyed an abundance of help from children. By comparison, he faced a manpower shortage. Josepe and Xabier helped, but they were less invested in the chores now. Justo rose in the darkness, worked without break through the day, and fell asleep shortly after eating whatever it was he bothered to toss into a pot that night. Josepe never complained of the food; Xabier did so only once.

Justo discovered a few tricks but never cut corners on chores that would affect the land or animals, only himself. He did not sew or mend clothing and never washed his or his brothers’ garments, he told them, because they would only get dirty again. If his brothers wanted to clean themselves, he did not complain, as long as the chores had been done.

“You look nice this morning,” one charitable woman commented to Justo when the three boys showed up to mass at least partially groomed.

“Yes,” Xabier cracked. “But our scarecrows are bare today.”

And so, Justo spent no time arranging for his own comforts, and he gave no thought to entertainment or diversion.

At times in the field, hypnotized by the rhythmic swinging of the scythe through the grasses, he discovered that he had been talking to himself aloud. He would look around to be certain Josepe or Xabier had not come upon him silently and heard his words. In these moments he realized his problem. He was lonely. The chores that had been so exciting in the presence of his brothers had become mere labor.

The only break he allowed himself came on feast days when he would finish his chores in the morning and then walk into town to take part in the competitions, the tug-of-war, the wood chopping, the stone lifting. He won many of them because of his imposing power. And because these exposures to people were so rare, he attempted to share with everyone all the jokes and examples of strength that went unappreciated during his seclusion at Errotabarri. If he became outrageous and self-inflated, it was entertainingly so, and those in the town anticipated his visits and cheered his many victories. For someone so lonely at home, the attention felt like the first warm day of spring.

At one of these outings he met a girl from Lumo who had come downhill to join the dancers. Her name was Mariangeles Oñati, and she caused Justo Ansotegui to reevaluate his approach to personal hygiene and self-imposed solitude.

Josepe Ansotegui smelled the Bay of Biscay long before he could see it. Having walked the serpentine mountain road north from Guernica for two days, past the caves and the jagged marble quarry and beyond the well-tended farms, he descended steadily in the direction of the breeze that carried the briny musk of low tide. When he arrived at the Lekeitio harbor in the softening dusk, clusters of women in aprons and scarves were prying small fi sh from nets along the quay. They chatted and sang in pleasant harmony.

Josepe scanned the boats moored along the perimeter of the harbor wall, looking for crews still at work. The first man he approached about a job responded with a laugh and a head shake. The second told him that fishermen came from fishing families, and farm boys were meant to be farmers, as was life’s order.

“My older brother took over the family baserri, so I thought I’d give fishing a try,” he explained. “I was told there was always work to be had on the boats.”

“I’ve got some work,” a man on the adjacent boat shouted. “Let’s see if you can lift this crate.”

With great strain, Josepe hoisted an overflowing crate of fish to his knees, then up to his waist, and off-loaded it to the dock. He looked back with a sense of triumph.

“Yes, you’re strong enough,” the fisherman said. “No, I don’t have any work for you—but thanks anyway.”

In the aft of a boat closest to the harbor mouth, a fisherman stood alone scanning the sky. “Zori,” the man said of his skyward focus when Josepe approached. “The old fishermen looked for zori, for omens, by reading which way the birds were flying.”

“And are the birds saying anything special this eve ning?” Josepe asked, glancing at a squadron of gulls that bickered above the harbor. “I think they’re saying they’re hungry; they’re circling the processors, waiting to dispose of our messes.”

The two shook hands.

“I’m Josepe Ansotegui of Guernica, I’m almost seventeen years old, and the only fishing I’ve done is in a stream with a string and a pin,” the boy said. “But I’m told I’m smart, and I’m looking for work.”

“Did you catch anything with your string and pin?”

“I caught a fat trout once, yes,” Josepe offered pridefully.

“Did you gut and clean the fat trout?”

“Yes, I did.”

“That’s all you need to know about fishing right now; you’re hired,” Alberto Barinaga said. “We’ll worry about your intelligence later.”

Barinaga, owner of the Zaldun, welcomed Josepe on board and into his home. Perhaps he had foreseen a productive relationship in the flight of the birds. In time, Barinaga became impressed by Josepe’s stories of growing up in a pack of playful boys following his mother’s death, and he admired his strength and his attitude. But mostly he came to appreciate his dedication to learning the business of fishing. In daily tutorials, while he scrubbed gunwales or repaired nets, or while at the family’s dinner table, Josepe absorbed the encyclopedia of maritime lore and culture the veteran captain presented.

“We chased the bowheads and cod to the shores of the Americas,” Barinaga preached at dinner. “The Santa María was one of our caravels, and Columbus had a Basque navigator and crew.”

“That is why he ended up in the Americas instead of the Indies,” his eldest daughter, Felicia, needled.

“Magellan had our navigators, too,” the captain continued.

“Some have suggested that we are so good on the waters because our race began on the lost island of Atlantis.”

Barinaga paused for effect, nodding his head as he buttered a thick slice of bread. “It is a possibility that I would not discount.”

Josepe, in turn, learned of his patroia from the gossipy crews of other boats. Barinaga was much admired among the family of fi shermen. On several occasions, his seamanship allowed the Zaldun to arrive in rescue of foundering boats and endangered crews. Josepe pulled in the lessons with both hands. He learned the songs of the sailors and joined in the singing as they repaired fraying nets on the days when rough seas sentenced them to work ashore.

Josepe repaid Alberto Barinaga’s hospitality by having sex nearly every night with his daughter Felicia in the bedroom directly beneath her sleeping parents.

When Xabier returned from school one afternoon and rushed to help his brother turn hay to dry with the long trident forks, Justo noticed scratches and purple welts across the back of his hands.

“What happened to you?”

“I gave an answer in Basque,” Xabier said.

Justo hadn’t been to school for years, but he remembered the teachers who belittled them at every opportunity and used a ruler or a willow branch to swat students who spoke Basque instead of Spanish in class.

“I’ll take care of this.”

At age eighteen, shirtless beneath unwashed coveralls, Justo went to school the next morning. Once the class was seated, save for Xabier, Justo approached the teacher, a bespectacled Spaniard with a marigold boutonniere.

At the front of the classroom, Justo lifted Xabier’s raked hand toward the teacher and said two words.

“Never again,” Justo said in Basque.

The teacher responded with a showy bluff, expecting the young farm boy to be daunted. “Vete!” he demanded in Spanish, pointing toward the door.

The teacher paused. He turned to the class and saw every student focused on the showdown. “Vete!” the teacher repeated, chin raised.

Justo struck so quickly the teacher was helpless, grabbing the extended arm and pulling it down between the teacher’s legs. Spinning around the bent-over teacher, Justo took the wrist with his other hand and lifted it so that the teacher straddled his own arm. In the span of a second, the teacher went from imperiously pointing toward the door to being bent in half, with his own arm between his legs and pulled up tightly against his scrotum.

Justo’s grip on the teacher’s wrist tightened as he lifted his arm even higher, causing the teacher to rise onto his toes to reduce the pressure on his groin. The teacher groaned. Students sat in stunned silence.

Justo bent and looked around at the teacher’s sweaty face and said two words. “Never again.”

Justo lifted him higher for an instant, then released his grip. The teacher dropped to the floor.

The first colorful installment of Justo Ansotegui’s legend passed from student to parents that afternoon, and every father relayed it to friends that evening at the taberna. The teacher did not show the next morning or the following one, and he was replaced. When Justo next appeared in town, several men he didn’t know stepped from storefronts and clapped their hands in approval. Justo smiled back and winked.

Xabier never needed his big brother’s assistance to get good marks. Not nearly as physical as his brother, Xabier instead felt himself grow stronger with every bit of information he committed to memory. He had no property and few possessions, but these facts were his: history, mathematics, grammar. So he assumed the role of dutiful student. If he had to act as if he were accepting of these Spanish teachers’ politics, he could easily pretend. By sixteen, he had consumed everything the public school teachers offered.

The next move was Justo’s, and he proposed it with typical bluntness at dinner.

“You know, Xabier, you’re not much help around here, and I may want to get married someday; have you ever thought about going into the seminary, maybe in Bilbao?”

Xabier was as devout as any boy, and he certainly had done nothing that would serve as an obstacle to joining the clergy; he simply had never considered it. He admired the parish priest but never sought to emulate him. But it would be a way to continue learning.

“Priests live comfortably; they’re respected in town,” Justo continued. “Besides, you’ve got no hope with women anyway.”

Xabier was not insulted, as he assumed Justo was right on that account. But Justo was his brother, not his father, and who was he to tell him what to do? He was about to question Justo’s authority when his brother made a final point.

“Mother would have liked it.”

The issue spurred all-night introspection. And when he rose at dawn, Xabier was reasonably certain it was a good idea. He informed Justo—with reservations.

“I thought there might be something more dramatic about a big decision like this. I thought priests felt some calling, that they heard some kind of heavenly voices.”

Justo, his muscled shoulders and arms extending from his ruffled apron, scooped eggs from a skillet onto Xabier’s plate.

“You did hear a voice,” Justo said. “Mine.”

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Customer Reviews

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 62 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 4, 2012

    Keep reviews simple

    Why do people feel the need to write a lengthy book report
    instead of a simple review? Just give your opinion of the writing style, did it keep your interest, age appropriate, believable plot, was it worth your time and money? When you go on and get past 10 lines, I don't even read your post. Just a simple review ... Please!

    7 out of 21 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted November 16, 2009

    Guernica by Dave Boling

    The subject of the Basque culture and the very locale was of interest to me because of family history in the region. It was a very well researched book in terms of the Basque country, the relationship between Spain's Basques and the French Basque.


    I consider this book as a wonderful archive of the history of the Basque people and the incredible tenacity they have in preserving their culture. Although the author spends a great deal of time developing his characters, they are so romanticized as to not seem real, thus making it difficult to establish a connection of identity with them as real people.

    For anyone with a desire to understand more about the Basque Separatist movement in an entertaining manner, I would highly recommend this book.

    7 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 9, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Great Debut Novel

    Guernica covers the years from 1893-1940. The reader learns of the Basque people and their culture. This is an agrian society, with farmers and fishermen. The people work hard and love their families and their land above all.

    The years before WW II are dangerous ones for this area. Those who want independance are overwhelmed by the Spanish who are allied with the Germans and the Italians. Basques are labeled as troublesome separatists and unloyal to the country. The Basque country is in Spain, and there is a natural struggle between the Spanish government and the Basque people. The forces making their way across Europe in this time frame gave a window of opportunity to those seeking to repress the Basques forever.
    The reader learns of two Basque families. One is a farming family, led by the Justo, the strongest man in town. He is married to Mariangeles and they have one child, a daughter named Miren. The other family is a fishing family, but one son is not enamoured of the sea and comes to Guernica to live his life instead as a carpenter. This is Miguel, who marries Miren and finds happiness and contentment with her. They have a baby daughter, Catalina.

    Those who have heard of Guernica probably know of it from the tragedy that struck the town on April 26, 1937. The German airforce, to train their pilots prior to the war they knew was coming, and to support Franco and his political party, carried out three hours of horrific air raids on the town. Guernica was almost totally destroyed, with most families losing one or many members and families torn apart. People were killed in the intial blasts, or in collapsing buildings or by overcrowding in the shelters. Almost no family was untouched. There was as much firepower used in this one attack as in all of WW I. It was the first use of modern air warfare, and the opening of the ability to kill hundreds in a quick attack. The other striking feature was that this was not a military attack; instead, harmless townpeople were targeted and shot down as they ran for shelter. The horror of what was done was captured by Picasso, in his famous painting of the same name, showing the world what had been done to Guernica and the Basques who had lived there for centuries.

    This is Dave Boling's first novel, and it is incredible to me that such a wonderful novel could be someone's debut. I was immediately attracted to the characters, and they became very important to me as I read. There was dread as I knew what would happen, but I had to continue reading to see what would happen to these brave families. This book is highly recommended to those lovers of historical fiction, or anyone looking for a great read.

    6 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 14, 2008

    Quite simply, this is excellence in literature

    This book is a fervent, consuming and entralling lesson in fortitude. The characters are vivid,interesting and compelling. There are layers of complexity interwoven into the family saga that take it to a higher level of writing than most historical novels. The characters seem hand picked to portray the strength, courage, love, patriotism and determined integrity of the Basque nation before, during and after the genocidal bombing of the town at the core of it's culture. Guernica educates in a grippingly graphic tone the horror of war and the collateral devastation it inflicts. And yet the intrinsic core of the story is of a family's love. It evokes humor, anger, disbelief, tears and joy. It has been a long time since a novel of this caliber, eloquent and enduring, has been published.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 8, 2011

    History and culture come alive

    This is a solid and thought-provoking historical fiction novel of a tragic period in Spanish history. The Basque culture came alive through the strong characters. This novel describes life before the bombs dropped and how the tragedy transformed the characters' loves, families and livelihoods and the different paths each chose to survive. "Justo learned from Miguel that if you lose someone you love, you need to redistribute your feelings rather than surrender them. You give them to whoever is left, and the rest you turn toward something that will keep you moving forward."

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 14, 2011

    Thoughtful, touching and insightful. Great reading!

    Guernica, the debut novel for Seattle journalist Dave Boling. Set in the moments before the outbreak of WWII in the Basque region straddling southwestern France and northwestern Spain, this novel is a beautiful meditation on the power of love and a heart-wrenching exploration of the devastation the machinery of war visits upon the innocents of all ages. While this book tells the tale of the people at the heart of Basque culture in Guernica, it paints on a canvas even larger than Picasso did for his epic mural. This intimate portrait paradoxically sprawls across the sweeping events of the era and illuminates--through fiction--the horror of war, the heroism of living a meaningful life in the face of unimaginable heartache, and the dignity of doing the best you can in the worst of circumstances. This was a five-star read for me, and is a fine example of how fiction at its best illuminates and informs the best and the worst in us.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 19, 2009

    A beautiful story

    Dave Boling weaves a beautiful tale that compels you to turn the page. I eagerly await his next book.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 3, 2012

    Interesting read

    The historical aspects of this novel were often fascinating. I really did not know very much about the tragedy at guernica before reading this. I became attached to a couple of the main characters and felt a sense of inevitable doom as i proceeded to read. Nevertheless, the ending was fantastic. A slow read, but still interesting.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 9, 2012

    Enjoyable read

    Enjoyable read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 6, 2012

    Wonderful story

    A mix of a great character study, history, and a lesson in the horrors of war.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 23, 2013

    This is a really good book. I didn't want to put it down.

    This is a really good book. I didn't want to put it down.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 10, 2013

    Avid Reader -Loved this book

    Really enjoyed this story, full of history and great characters. I look forward to his next book.... as others have indicated. It truly is hard to believe this was his first book.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 2, 2013

    Great story

    This is a totally absorbing novel which contains finely drawn characters against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. It provides a fascinating glimpse into the Basque culture and people. Ieagerly await other novels by the author of this book. Does anyone have any recommendations regarding other novels about this subject?

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 28, 2012

    Highly recommend. A wonderful read!

    This is a beautifully written book about the Spanish civil war. It reminded me of Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises."

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  • Posted June 20, 2012

    Hope rising from the ashes

    This book is horrifying, poignant, deeply sad, and full of hope. The characters are vivid, and the blending of real historical characters with the fictional ones is skillful. The horror of the attack on Guernica and the subsequent suffering and deprivation of the people becomes almost palpable as one reads. The strength and determination of the survivors, however, is inspiring. Strongly recommend this book.

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  • Posted April 22, 2012

    Gripping account of an Historical Event

    Story of the event which inspired one of Picasso's most famous paintings. A must read for any serious reader of historical fiction!
    A great selection for a book club.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 16, 2012

    Brings to life a moment in history not to be forgotten

    If you wonder how the Nazis began the carnage later visited on their European neighbors, learn about the people in the peaceful Basque town they erased in a day just for practice. The author draws you into their lives and you won't forget them.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 6, 2012

    Guernica and how it came to life for me

    very enjoyable story well written. I enjoyed all the people in the story and how they all fit together. I went on-ling after I read the book to read more on the country and the war.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 25, 2012

    Pleasently surprised

    Good read.

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  • Posted March 13, 2012

    recommend if u like historical based novels.

    Was hard for me to read but did enjoy the story.

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 62 Customer Reviews

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