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“An eye-opener of a novel, a road map to the real California . . . [Straight] turns headlines into poetry.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Packed with the kind of detail about people, places and emotions that transport the reader to a different world.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“One of America’s gutsiest writers . . . a polyglot with an astonishing ear for how people really talk in places we hardly remember they are living.” —The Baltimore Sun
“Heartrending.” —Publishers Weekly
Prologue Serafina held the Virgen de Guadalupe curled in her palm. The blue- robed woman standing on a bed of roses was still warm. Larry had torn the oval picture from the glass candleholder, the veladora Serafina kept burning all day to assure the Virgen’s gaze upon her and her daughter.
“This ain’t Mexico,” he had said, eyes red as pomegranate seeds, and then he roared off in his blue truck.
Without the image, the candle flame shook small and lonely as a glowing grain of rice. Elvia stared at the wick through the bare glass. Serafina watched the tiny fire reflected in her pupils. The little duplex room had filled with the purple light of summer evening.
Serafina smoothed the stained-glass edging around the Virgen. This was not enough. She had tried to make an altar inside the kitchen, but she needed to pray inside a church, with santos looking down upon her, to ask what she should do.
“Ná?” Elvia called to her mother in their Mixtec language. “Nducha yúján nun hi?” She wanted Serafina to make atole, to heat the milk with ground-corn masa and sugar and cinnamon.
Serafina waited, her eyebrows raised. “Please,” Elvia said perfectly. She had just turned three. She could say many words. Serafina picked her up and carried her to the kitchen so she could feel the small hands fluttering like moths on her shoulders.
Serafina knew Please. Thank you. Money. Pay. Fuckin cops. Fuckin truck. American. Speak English. Okay. Sorry. She could say “sorry,” but she couldn’t form her lips properly around any of the other words. She had said “sorry” a few hours ago to Larry,when he had whirled around the house and torn the Virgen from her veladora and shouted, “Ellie’s American! My kid’s American, okay? Quit this shit!” But her “sorry” didn’t sound right. She tried to whisper it now, but her throat wouldn’t cooperate. She was crying. She wanted to kneel inside the church at home, to touch San Cristobal, the patron saint of her village, to rub Elvia with flowers and then lay them on the altar as an offering, to pray about what kind of life Elvia would have.
“Ná?” Elvia crooned now. “Cap’n Crunch?” It was almost gone. It was very expensive. But Serafina poured the yellow pillows of cereal into a plastic bowl. She knew she would have to drive the car. Elvia could carry the cereal. Elvia reached up with a golden square between her fingers, offering it to her mother, and Serafina crushed the sweet powder with her teeth.
Maiz. Nun . It was corn, she knew. She stirred a swirling brown veil of cinnamon into the atole. The steam rose from the thickened milk and clouded her eyes for a moment, and she saw home. The mist descending from the mountains, softening the harsh light of here. California.
“Ná ?” Elvia said from near the TV. “Sesame Street.” Serafina kneeled next to her daughter, blowing on the mug of atole, trying to imagine herself driving past the fence. The television said, “A. Apple. A.” “Apple,” Elvia said. “Ná —apple.” Serafina nodded, closing her eyes so the steam couldn’t collect there and make tears that would frighten her daughter.
“B. Balloon. B.” A boy was carried away by the blue circle.
“C. Cat. C.” The yellow cat’s whiskers shivered when he grinned.
Outside in the twilight, she held Elvia on her hip and touched the hot door handle of the black car named Nova, almost like a bride. Novia. The car was Larry’s bride, with heavy-lidded jeweled eyes. Serafina studied the dusty hood. The car always stayed in the driveway, facing the street to hide the blank square where the license plate should be. When Larry came home, he worked on the insides, tangled like pig intestines.
He had tossed the keys at her and laughed. “Drive back to Mexico,” he’d said. “Get a life.” Now Elvia slid onto the front seat, laughing, holding her bowl of cereal. She loved Larry’s truck; sometimes he let her turn the steering wheel. Last week, when Serafina began to ease the Nova up and down the dirt driveway, Elvia had explored each dashboard knob. Her short brown legs stuck out stiffly over the edge of the seat.
Serafina placed the mug of hot atole in the black plastic tray on the seat between them. When she turned the key in its silver circle, the car closed a dark hull around Serafina, and suddenly she couldn’t breathe. The floor trembled. She closed her eyes, then opened them, afraid. She had come to California in the trunk of a car. The rumbling under her cheek had stayed inside her brain for days. The oily air had stayed inside her throat.
Black gas step. Black stop step. She pushed on them, her own short legs reaching with difficulty. Elvia screamed with delight at the jerking movements of the car down the driveway. The cloud—haired old woman from next door came outside, waving, pointing to something on the ground. Serafina looked away. I don’t have her money, she thought. Renttttt. No rent.
The car jostled off the curb and into the street. Serafina made herself breathe. A white tower. She thought she had seen a white tower when they had first moved here. She hadn’t been past the corner store since. She pushed down on the black gas step and the car moved slowly into the darkness, the engine growling like a large dog in her ears.
At home, the church sat on the highest knoll, where people could see the cross and blue door from miles away. The church was always lit by candles, the door always open, in case someone needed to pray or give an offering.
What did I bring? Serafina stopped the car with a decisive jerk at the corner. I have nothing to offer. She saw two cars approaching, and her heart ticked like crickets trapped in a jar. The cars went past, the street was empty, and she turned onto the avenue. Moving the wheel was hard. It was slick and bumpy, not like wood, not rough and cool like stone.
Serafina pushed each step in its turn, and Elvia reached forward to play with the dashboard knobs. The Nova bucked and moved down the street until Serafina saw the white tower and cross, lit bright. She turned the wheel again, and it fought her. The Nova went into the parking lot, where bumps in the asphalt made the car rise up and then fall.
Elvia said suddenly, “Nuhun.” Fire? Serafina glanced at the dashboard, where Elvia pointed. The knobs and lights and vents were like a strange altar. One knob suddenly pushed itself back out, and Elvia pulled out a fiery-red metal eye. Serafina snatched it quickly, and the car swerved. Darkness rose before them, and Serafina tried to push the stop step, but the car’s mouth hit something hard, like a fist against teeth. The windshield was black with leaves, buried in a thick hedge.
Elvia screamed, and at the same moment Serafina felt the burning pang on her arm. She stared at the knob in her hand, but the heat had subsided to an ashen black circle.
The atole had flown from the mug when the car hit the hedge. The thick white splatter on her own arm stung like the bite of a thousand red ants. She saw one large drop on Elvia’s wrist, and immediately put her mouth to the burn. The hot sweet milk disappeared under her tongue, and she licked and then blew on Elvia’s skin, licking and blowing, cooling and kissing and breathing on the burn, saying she was sorry, she was so sorry she had made Elvia cry.
Elvia had cried only two times in the past year. Once, a boy with hair red as chiles had thrown a rock from the street, hitting her in the back. And once, Larry had driven away in his truck, and Elvia cried because she wanted to drive again.
Serafina whispered to the wound, watching the angry red welt glisten with her own saliva, and then Elvia shuddered one last time and tucked her head into Serafina’s chest. Serafina heard scraping, settling in the hedge, and she twisted the dangling keys. The engine- muttering stopped. Elvia pointed to the black knob and said, “Tá — Daddy’s nuhun.” Serafina dropped the lighter into her pocket. Then she put her hands together on the black wheel and laid her cheek there until Elvia said, “Ná ?” Serafina ran her finger around the mug sides, collecting the now-cooled atole on a finger for Elvia. She whispered to Elvia that atole stayed hot forever, so it was the best drink for cold mornings and nights at home, in Mexico. You could carry a mug of atole to the field and sip it every now and then, and the warmth would seep into your chest.
Bells sounded in the church tower, but Serafina lost count. Elvia yawned and laid her head on Serafina’s lap. Serafina felt the hard lighter knob against her thigh. Now it couldn’t hurt her daughter. Elvia would sleep, and Serafina would go inside to pray.
“Cus,” she told Elvia, whose eyes were blinking slowly. “Cuhe síhí.” Sleep, my daughter. She waited until each small breath was like a cloud exhaled.
Serafina hid the keys under the seat. She got out of the car. Elvia slept, curled on the black vinyl, her hand cupped like a tiny ladle. The leaves of the hedge were dark and sharp. A light went on in a building nearby; a head was silhouetted behind a curtain. Serafina saw a triangle of glass, a set of fingers when the curtain was pulled back. Then the window went black again.
She tried the small door on the side of the long church, then the double doors in front. Every entrance was locked. No wide blue door slanted open, no welcoming golden candle flames. Serafina glanced back at the car, which was like an animal grazing peacefully in the leaves, and she went around to the other side.
Far across the huge lawn, the woman stood.
White stone. She had no blue veil or golden robe or dark eyes. But her hands were held out in supplication, Serafina saw when she drew close. She was a santo.
The statue’s face was paled by passing headlights, and Serafina stood on the base, close to the hard lips, and touched their icy coolness. The eyes were blank circles, but Serafina whispered, “Help me. Tell me what to do, and I will do it.” She lowered her face to the hands, breathing in their chalky scent, laying her cheek against one wrist. “Tell me,” she whispered. “Tell me she will have enough to eat if we go back.” She heard a short whirl of sound, and the stone blushed. The white skin was suffused with red light, the lips and cheeks translucent, pulsing. She heard her own language, soft and humming, when she reached to touch the robe now flashing blue, like the Virgen’s.
“Home,” she heard then. “Go home.” Footsteps landed on the concrete behind her, and a man’s voice said, “Hey, time to go home.” His flashlight was in her face, the blue lights twirling into the stone eyes. She turned and ran.
The policeman tackled her on the grass and lifted her by the elbow, and she dropped her shoulder and began to run again. Her tongue rose in her throat, and she gasped for air when he caught her again.
Another policeman watched while the first held her skull between his hands and said, “ID? ID? You got ID?” “Mydotter! Mydotter!” She screamed the words, felt their strange shape pull the cords in her throat. “My! My dotter!” “Okay, okay, you need a doctor. In Mexico. Get a doctor in Mexico.” He held her wrist with one hand and pulled her up slowly. She hit him in the shoulder. She hit him in the face. She had to run back to the car, around the corner, to the dark lot where Elvia waited.
But he pushed her down gently onto the sidewalk until her cheek rubbed the rough cement. “Damn,” he said when she twisted against the handcuffs, kicking him as they carried her across the street to the flashing car.
Serafina screamed. She couldn’t see the car. They were taking her away. “Elvia! Ná , Elvia, mommy, my dotter . . .” The words spilled wrong all across their forearms until one policeman shifted his sleeve over her lips.
“No habla espanol,” he said softly, shaking his head like a father. She understood those words. But she screamed again into the fabric until the harsh red light circled close to her eyes, pumping like blood from a deep cut when they laid her in the dark back seat.
The police car began to move. She screamed into the vinyl as her body floated away from her daughter who was sleeping, her head cushioned by braids. Serafina struggled to raise herself, to see, but she saw only the red light glaring, draining her, flashing in the same rhythm as her heart.
Moths dove in and out of the streetlight beam, banging against the window near her, then veering away in bursts of blurry white.
Branches and leaves covered the windshield, pressed tight like a blanket of black knives. Elvia wasn’t to touch knives. Her mother used knives to take the spines off the green cactus pads. They could eat the cactus then. Her father had gotten angry when he saw the cactus today. Once Elvia had gotten spines embedded in her finger, and her mother had pulled out the tiny red needles with her teeth.
Elvia studied the red circle of burn on her wrist. Her mother had kissed the burn. Elvia licked it herself. Her mother would lick and cool it again when she came back.
The crickets resumed their shrill scraping in the black leaves all around the car. Elvia had awakened in the front seat. Her mother was gone. The keys were gone. Her father had thrown the keys, flying with silver wings and landing on her mother’s chest.
Ndéchi ná ? Where was her mother?
Ndéchi Barbie? Where was her Barbie? That was what the kids next door said to her through the silver fence. Cap’n Crunch Barbie Dandelion Stupid Beaner Mescan Hey Crickets Shut Up Ice Cream Truck Bye.
Her father had brought her the Barbie. Then he had gone back outside to the blue truck that roared behind a silver nose. She loved to steer the blue truck. She touched the dashboard knobs now. She had been inside this car only a few times. Her mother drove up and down the driveway. Barbie was on the ground, next to the hedge by the old lady with dandelion-puff hair. But Elvia didn’t cry. They were only riding up and down the driveway.
Tonight the car had bounced over bumps and made Elvia scream and laugh. It rocked and pitched like a huge, low-slung animal raising its back over the humps and then drawing in all its bones with a jarring tremble when they were over. Like a wild horsie ride her father had let her ride at the store. One time. Today?
Where was her mother?
The silver knob had turned fire-red and her mother had taken it away. Nuhun. Her mother’s lips were red as the glowing circle. As though pomegranate juice stained her mouth. Ch hló—with sour red jewels inside. And her mother’s eyes were covered with blue sky.
The moths bumped harder against the glass, and Elvia peered out the window to see them dancing crazily in the light, dipping in and out of darkness. She saw the parking lot, empty and gray as if she were inside a cloud. Vico nuhu, her mother always said, pointing up at the clouds.
Her mother. Elvia was afraid now, and she ducked down into the cave under the dashboard. The well of space was warm, just the right size when she drew her legs to her chest. The floor felt like evening sidewalk against her legs. She twisted her braid into a pillow for her head. She could smell her mother’s cinnamon.
Something pale bumped the other window, harder, harder, and she looked up. The sky was light. The moths were gone.
A pair of white hands pressed like a snail’s underside against the glass, around a wide face bright as the moon. Elvia screamed and screamed when the man opened the door. She screamed while he pulled her out and carried her away.
Then she was quiet, and she didn’t open her mouth for months. “Where is your mother?” the man kept asking. Then a woman asked, “Where is your mother? Your father?” Behind her glasses, the woman’s eyes were huge and dark as plums. Her hair was a nest of yellow. She touched Elvia’s hair and said, “Pretty braid.” Elvia pulled away. She said inside her head, Lasú. The woman touched her fingers and said, “Little hands.” Elvia put them under her legs. She said inside her head, Ndaha. The woman put her in a car.
At the first house, the mother was big. All Elvia could see was the hem of her flowing shift. The rest of her was so wide and full of loose curves that she seemed to take up the whole front room where they stayed, day after day. Elvia watched the edge of material sweep past her on the floor where she sat. It collected carpet strands and lint and crumbs and bits of paper. The dusty, furred hem of the dress looked like the bottom of her mother’s broom after she swept the kitchen. Elvia used to sit on the floor then, too, her face close to the sweet-smelling straw as it traveled near her, teasingly close to her bare feet. She would look up at her mother, who pretended she didn’t see Elvia’s feet, gliding the tickly points of straw just past the soles.
Elvia waited for her mother. She didn’t move from the floor. She didn’t speak. The woman talked all the time. Another boy came. He had a bruise red as a ch hló on his cheek and a thick white sock on his wrist. But it wasn’t a sock. When the big woman went to the kitchen, he hit Elvia across the back with the sock, hard like a stone wrapped around his bones. She didn’t move. He threw a truck at her. She didn’t move. The big woman tried to feed him. He ran from the chair to the television to the couch to Elvia, touching each one with his good hand stiff and flat, running to the next.
She said nothing at the house where the mother had tongue- colored hair, where the many children pinched one another over individual Cheerios and fought about every hot dog.
She never answered at the house where everyone had braids except the father, who had a silver stripe in his black hair. The braids made her cry. The boys and girls had brown skin. The father talked gently to her, repeating, “Habla espanol,” but she couldn’t stop crying.
She was silent at the house where the woman washed everyone’s hair in the bathtub and Elvia’s long black hair swirled around the others’ legs like wet roots. She said nothing when the woman cut off her braid the next day. The black braid lay like a glistening snake in the white bottom of the kitchen sink.
She remembered her fingers wrapped around her mother’s braid while her mother carried her on her hip. She remembered the smell of cinnamon and corn. She touched her bare neck.
The woman kept staring at Elvia’s eyes, frowning at her brown skin, the scissors rasping. Elvia closed her eyes, remembering her father. His eyes were green, like faded palm fronds. Like hers. He used to say, “My kid” to his friends in the yard. Her father had yellow hair like dry grass, tied in a ponytail. Not a braid.
The woman threw Elvia’s braid in the trash. Elvia looked at the picture of Jesus on the wall. Her father looked like Jesus, if Jesus wore his hair in a ponytail and cut off the sides of his beard so only a yellow paintbrush hung from his chin, if Jesus took off his shirt and got mad.
Every night, in every house, Elvia waited until the woman or man put on the porch light. The moths gathered around the glass- paneled brass lamps or bare bulbs, and Elvia stayed on the porch as long as she could, watching the blurry white bodies circle and pause and hover. If she sat still enough, they would brush past her cheek or shoulder. She was quiet, listening to the hum and quiver of the moths, waiting for her mother to come back.
Copyright © 2001 by Susan Straight Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
1. Why does Elvia refuse to speak when she is placed in foster care [pp. 8—10]? How do Elvia’s reactions to her foster families shed light on the emotions hidden beneath her stoic exterior?
2. Elvia “liked looking strange, like someone no one would want and no one would want to mess with” [p. 15]. Do you think this is a common attitude among children who grow up in foster homes? From what you have read about foster care and the way many children are treated, what role does the system itself play in creating this sense of alienation and defiance?
3. In explaining why he finally comes for Elvia, Larry says, “I got un-lost” [p. 14]. What insights does this explanation and other conversations Elvia and Larry have about Serafina [p. 67, for example] offer into Larry’s image of himself and his approach to life? Do his actions in the novel support or belie the advice he gives Elvia: “Don’t set yourself up. Don’t expect anything. Ever” [p. 68]? Does the story of his own childhood make it easier to understand both his good intentions and his inability to stick to them?
4. What draws Elvia to Michael? In what ways is he similar to her father? Is Michael better able to cope with his situation (“Half Mexican, half Indian. Half the year here, half in Dos Arroyos” [p. 24]) than she is, and if so, why?
5. What is the significance of Elvia’s interest in geology? Why is her collection of stones so important to her?
6. During her travels with Michael and Hector, Elvia comes to realize that “Michael was good at dreams. But Hector was good at the rest of life” [p. 174]. Discusshow the author conveys this distinction, not only in descriptions of their behavior but also through the observations they make and the stories they share with Elvia throughout the journey. What particular events or incidents demonstrate Elvia’s naiveté about the historical and cultural forces that define California’s social divisions? How does the knowledge she acquires about the dangerous, often fatal migrations of illegal workers, and her own back-breaking experience picking fruit, change her outlook on the world and her sense of her place in it?
7. Serafina makes her journey in the company of two men, Florencio and the coyote. To what extent is Florencio’s role parallel to the roles Michael and Hector play in Elvia’s journey? Does Serafina undergo changes comparable to Elvia’s?
8. The focus of the narrative alternates between Serafina and Elvia. Is this merely a device to increase the suspense of the story? What else does Straight accomplish by juxtaposing these two tales?
9. Do your feelings about the three main characters change during the course of the novel? Which of them did you find the most interesting? The most likeable?
10. Straight portrays several parent-child relationships in Highwire Moon, from Serafina’s devotion to Elvia and to her own mother when she returns to Mexico to Callie’s blatant and sometimes dangerous neglect of Jeff, to Elvia’s complicated feelings about Larry and Sandy Narlette and her longing for the mother she barely remembers. What do these different examples convey about the reality of parenthood, as well as the effects of culture and tradition on raising a child? Are any of the relationships easily classified as either “good” or “bad”?
11. Hector’s aunt says, “the one feed you, take care of you, take you to la clinica for sick, wash the clothes, who is the mother” [p. 158]. How do you think Serafina would react to this statement? How does it relate to Larry’s description of his role in Elvia’s life [p. 73], as well as his memories of his treatment of Serafina, who is just Elvia’s age when he meets her [p. 81]?
12. Elvia and Serafina visit several of the same places. Did you find this series of coincidences credible? Did you hope that the two would cross paths? What do you think would have happened if they did find each other?
13. Highwire Moon is in many ways a book about traveling: Serafina’s harrowing trek northward, Elvia’s journey to find her mother, and Larry’s restless wanderings in search of jobs and drugs. How does this motif enhance the novel’s themes? What does Highwire Moon share with other classic American novels built around journeys–for example, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road?
14. One reviewer comments, “[Straight] puts identity politics to shame. She explodes the fiction, fashionable as it now is, that white folks ‘get’ white folks and only black folks ‘get’ black folks and the experiences of raped women is comprehensible only to other raped women” (Christina Nehring, Washington Post Book World, 8/12/01). Do you agree with this evaluation? How does Straight capture the distinctive qualities of the various ethnic groups she writes about? Are the portraits equally convincing?
15. From the first page of the book, when Serafina feels Elvia’s “small hands fluttering like moths on her shoulders” to Elvia’s decision to get a tattoo of three moths [p. 117], references to moths, both metaphorical and literal, occur throughout the book. What do they symbolize? What other recurrent images does Straight use? Do they evoke consistent associations (either positive or negative) or do they represent the ambiguity inherent in even the most ordinary events and objects?
16. Straight includes both Spanish and Mixtec words throughout the book. What effect does this have on your experience as a reader? How does language help to define each character?
17. The title of the novel comes from a conversation between Sandy Narlette and Elvia [p. 70]. Why is the image of the moon briefly “balanced” on a wire an appropriate metaphor for the way life unfolds for Elvia and her parents?
Posted January 1, 2014
Posted January 1, 2014
Posted January 14, 2002
This is a wonderful story told with a humane touch that really brings the characters to life. Straight is a compassionate writer, and that compassion overcomes the sometimes rough prose that distracts from the story. She is a great storyteller, a pretty good writer. But it is the compassion - the genuine compassion - that makes this novel worth reading.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 30, 2001
Although this is not a true story the truth in this story comes from the fact that people do endure these types of hardships on a daily basis and go unnoticed. Hopefully this will open some eyes and hearts to those who read the book as it did mine.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 20, 2013
No text was provided for this review.