Hummingbird House

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A breathtaking and passionate debut novel about an American midwife discovering the secret wars in Guatemala. Henley weaves her clear and powerful prose into the unforgettable story of a human heart unbinding itself in the most unjust of worlds.

"...[an] accomplished first novel.... Henley ...

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A breathtaking and passionate debut novel about an American midwife discovering the secret wars in Guatemala. Henley weaves her clear and powerful prose into the unforgettable story of a human heart unbinding itself in the most unjust of worlds.

"...[an] accomplished first novel.... Henley guides her readers through this tale one graceful and slicing sentence at a time, calling up both despair and wonder, outrage and hope." Hungry Mind Review

"... a moving story of love and injustice." Independent Publisher Magazine

"...Kates's tale rings true in her realistic conclusion that gross injustice calls for more than merely sorrow, but also rage, sacrifice and the ability to simultaneously love and lose." Publishers Weekly

Patricia Henley has published two collections of stories, Friday Night at Silver Star and The Secret of Cartwheels. Her stories have been anthologized in Best American Short Stories and The Pushcart Prize Anthology. Hummingbird House is her first novel and was a finalist for the prestigious National Book Award in 1999 and the New Yorker Fiction Prize 1999.

1999 National Book Award nominee for Fiction.

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Editorial Reviews

Hungry Mind Review
[an] accomplished first novel....Henley guides her readers through this tale one graceful and slicing sentence at a time, calling up both despair and wonder, outrage, and hope.
From The Critics
...[A] moody, intense, passionate first novel, a near-staccato, stream-of-consciousness style that generates great immediacy...
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
To be strong enough for the path she's chosen, 42-year-old American midwife Kate Banner, the protagonist of this moving novel, must "cut off pieces of her heart." Her three-week visit to Mexico during the 1980s becomes an eight-year Central American sojourn once she witnesses the poverty and war-torn devastation of the people she encounters and decides to help. She delivers babies and administers basic medicine at an makeshift clinic, and travels, passionately but somewhat aimlessly, from Mexico to Nicaragua to Guatemala. She moves through the countrysides both with and without her compadres, a group of mostly North American activists, including the lover who soon leaves her and a priest whose love for Kate makes him question his vows. After experiencing many tragic losses, Kate occasionally wrestles with the notion of returning home to Indiana, but her heart (however assaulted) lies with the native peoples and their struggles. Her sacrifices achieve meaning when a collectively imagined school/clinic for destitute Guatemalan children becomes a very real possibility. And when Hummingbird House is established, Kate is satisfied she has helped make one lasting contribution to a community despite all she has lost, including, she laments, her youth. This first novel by short story writer (The Secret of Cartwheels) and poet (Back Roads) Henley is darkly atmospheric, with fluent dialogue and an assured prose style. Numerous subplots, though clearly heartfelt and informative, sometimes detract from Kate's centrality. The prismatic trajectory of the tale may be deliberate, for the author's message is double-edged: that trying for a better world is necessary, demanding work, but no one can save herself through saving the world. Kate's tale rings true in her realistic conclusion that gross injustice calls for more than merely sorrow, but also rage, sacrifice and the ability to simultaneously love and lose. FYI: A portion of the author's royalties will be donated in support of human rights worldwide.
Kirkus Reviews
In a carefully crafted but overwrought first novel, an American midwife experiencing compassion fatigue cannot escape the claims of love and duty. Henly's stary, a not-so-subtle homily on the evils of war, capitalism, and the US government, should outrage—it's a tale of violence against children and well-meaning political activists—but its characters are too one-dimensional to be compelling. Fortyish Kate Banner, an American midwife now living in the Guatemala highlands, has always wanted to help the less fortunate. Prompted by a visit from her first lover, Paul, she recalls the events that brought her and street child Marta to Guatemala eight years ago, after Kate had first worked in refugee camps in Mexico, then Nicaragua. But after a long romance (with Deaver, a weapons supplier to the rebels) ended, and a young mother whose baby she delivered unexpectedly died, she felt she had to get away. She was worn out, she told María, a colleague and friend who suggested she go to Guatemala, where friends had a house. Once there, Kate found she had to share lodgings with attractive Father Dixie Ryan, on a leave of absence from the Church. Though still emotionally drained, Kate is soon helping Vidalúz, whose activist husband, Hector, has been unlawfully detained, and the traumatized street-child Marta. She is also increasingly attracted to Dixie, and a series of crises–—Kate is briefly arrested, María and her lover are killed, and Hector brutally murdered—bring them together, and they move, along with Marta, to Hummingbird House, a farm Dixie hopes to turn into a cooperative when he leaves the priesthood. But even the countryside is not immune from war,and Kate must contend with more tragedy before she learns to find fulfillment, rather than mere consolation, in working to improve the peasants' lives.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781878448989
  • Publisher: MacAdam/Cage Publishing, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 4/28/2000
  • Pages: 300
  • Product dimensions: 5.34 (w) x 8.06 (h) x 0.97 (d)

First Chapter

Chapter One

Father Dixie Ryan got off the bus on a wide boulevard in Zone 2, Guatemala City, carrying a soft-sided suitcase patched with duct tape. Sunlight slashed here and there into the shady street where traffic stood nearly still in black waves of exhaust. He imagined the oily mix coating his lungs. The orphanage, a gas station fenced on three sides with tall blue planks: these were familiar landmarks.

A Cherokee, its windows glossy black, crept out from an alley clotted with houseware vendors. The priest turned--his neck hair bristling--and maneuvered in an oxbow through the people on the street. At the gas station he asked the attendant if he could use the restroom. "Sí, sí, padre," the man said, wiping his hands on a rag. "The night watchman lives back there." The priest slipped through the blue gate and into a dirt yard where there stood a brand-new cement-block toilet stall with grainy newspaper photos of Michael Jordan plastered above a basin. Inside he relieved himself. Then he leaned his head against the cement wall. His vision swam. He took out the scrap of paper with Sunny's address. El Pacífico Sueño.

He waited as long as he could manage without arousing suspicion before slipping back into the street and the neighborhood, through the park where trash drifted, where street kids congregated, sucking on brown paper bags of cobbler's glue, past bakeries, past market stalls with radios on and mothers combing out the hair of little ones or men waiting for customers to make the smallest affordable purchase, a cigarette or two, a box of Black Cat matches, a cup of white rice. The Cherokee did not reappear. At El Pacífico Sueño--the peaceful sleep, the peaceful dream--he knocked on the red front door. A wooden sign creaked above him; a star the size of a butter cookie had been carved after the word Sueño.

Sunny answered his knock.

"Dix." She took his hand, drew him inside.

A blinking fluorescent tube lit the foyer. Child-sized coffins stacked against two stucco walls were dusty, though he could still detect their piney smell. A three-year-old picture calendar of churches--turned to November 1985--hung over a desk in whose many open cubbyholes lay the yellowing invoices of funerals past.

He said, "I might have been followed."

Sunny turned to the desk and plucked a tiny manila envelope from a drawer.

"Here it is," she said. She took his arm, kissed his cheek. "Make yourself at home."

He pocketed the key and left at once.

He found a café in the same block and settled into its dim cool interior, his Roman collar and Panama hat on the table. The last bus would leave a little after seven. He could be at Sunny and Ben's Antigua house by eight o'clock. He'd do as the Canadian doctor advised: rest until the breakbone fever gave up its hold on him.

Waiting for dusk, he drank limonada and read Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. Out on the street a vendor hawked toy skeletons for Day of the Dead and an old woman scattered flowers on the sidewalk: golden flores del muerto. So that the dead may find their way home

"Go on now. I can't keep you anymore."

The man on the motor scooter lifted Marta by her wrist and Eduardo caught his little sister. They stood in sunshine at the edge of a park scruffy with trash and tree limbs blown down by wind. Flocks of children loitered, squatting, poking each other, hunching head to head.

"Es Guate, Marta," Eduardo said, taking her hand in his. "El capital!" He fingered the wrinkled dollar bill the gringo had given him. He kept it in a secret pocket inside his shirt, a patch pocket his mother had sewn for him so that he could run errands for her without being robbed.

Marta said nothing. Her hair tangled in permanent greasy knots. She was eight years old, Eduardo twelve. The sun was bleached like straw where an animal slept.

In the park they watched the beggar who shared their bench. With his white beard, his gray hair thatchy, his trousers rolled to the knees, his legs streaked with dirt, his feet--Eduardo had never seen such feet. Big, thick-skinned, with toenails as black as tortilla blisters. His dusty bolsa had been crocheted in a design familiar to Eduardo: purple and green stripes with the plumed quetzal worked in. It was a design from the village nearest the village where Eduardo and Marta had been born in the highlands above the Chixoy River. A similar bolsa hung in front of the statue of the Virgin in the village church; his mother had sometimes filled it with corn as an offering.

Tall trees shaded their park bench. The smell of rotting fruit nearby. Marta perched primly beside Eduardo, her eyes wide, her red corte tattered along its folds. She had to be vigilant about adjusting the folds and retying her sash; the fabric was soft and worn and if she did not watch, her corte would slip down. It was her one last piece of clothing. Her grandmother had made this corte. Her grandmother had woven her sash on a backstrap loom; the sash was gray and red and black: sturdy stripes. When the sash and the corte had been brand new, she had worn a red glass-bead necklace tied in a knot against her chest. The necklace had been long lost. Trucks and cars and bicycles dodged and swerved, bright and ramshackle, horns blurting. She had never before seen the capital, the traffic and the big advertisements and the capitalistas in glistening bloody lipstick, their spiky leather shoes. The gringo with the motor scooter was a man so tall that Marta had to tilt her head back to see his long horsey face. He had peanut butter in his backpack and he had bought them hot-from-the-griddle tortillas in Los Encuentros. Early in the morning, before daylight.

Go on now. I can't keep you anymore.

They had ridden, clinging to him, clinging to each other, in the dust, in the oily exhaust, in the itchy vibration of the worn-out tires against the washboard roads, all the way from Chichi.

The beggar reached into his bolsa. He glanced around guardedly and pulled out part of a loaf of brown sugar. He took a bite. Eduardo salivated. Marta squeezed his kneecap. Their mother had nearly always kept a piece of such sugar in a tin on the shelf. She had shaved curls of the coarse brown stuff on their hot cereal or rice. Eduardo did not like to think about his mother but she and his father were never far from his thoughts. He had last seen his father at the municipal hall in the center of the village. A rainy night, a night of fiesta. Eduardo had peeked through the loose fenceboards and there he had seen his father dancing like a marionette to marimba in a line of drunken men. The courtyard of the municipal hall had been slick with mud and the birds-of-paradise had been coated with mud and the mud had soaked up the striped trousers of the drunken men who shouted and slurred the monotonous and mournful songs. They danced and laughed, although they looked as though they cried, with the whites of their eyes sore and red. Rain and clouds bled like ink over everything. After the fiesta the military had come. Soldiers with hard eyes. Shiny bayonets. Steel-toed boots. Helicopters had chopped like razor wings above the village.

With his dirty thumb the beggar pressed out two hunks of sugar from the loaf and offered them to Eduardo and Marta. They hurried down the concrete bench, hovered over his open hand. The beggar shrugged. Eduardo plucked the sugar--hunks the size of small bird eggs--from the old man's hand and ate. And Marta ate. The sugar melted on their tongues, at once rough and velvety; the palm trees swayed, their palm leaves clacking; the scent and oil of oranges burst in invisible clouds nearby where a man unloaded oranges in red net bags from a flatbed; and the capital was for that moment a place of generosity.

A boy swaggered up to the bench. His knuckles were bony, his skeleton visible under his ashy dark skin. "Give it to me," he said.

The beggar crammed the sugar into his bolsa, hugged the bolsa to his chest. Eduardo and Marta scrambled to the end of the long bench.

"For--my--boys." The intruder called his boys forward with a chop of his hand. His flat cheeks were chalky, his eyes devoid of light. Busy people passed by. They swarmed along the sidewalks. No one took notice.

One of the boys--a little older, perhaps fourteen, in a plaid shirt that had all its buttons--stared with malevolent eyes at Eduardo and Marta. "Are you with the old one?"

The first boy hit the beggar's face with a stick.

Eduardo said, "No lo conocemos a él."

He grabbed Marta's trembling hand and slipped away to a palm tree behind a fruit vendor's stand. They squatted at the base of the palm tree, stealing glances, watching but not watching the beggar and the boys, their hearts beating hard within the spark and boom of the strange city. The fruit vendor's plywood stand had been painted to resemble a bunch of bananas. Beneath the stand was a bodega. Eduardo imagined sleeping under there. That was on his mind, finding a safe place to sleep.

"Piña y mango, piña y mango," called the fruit vendor. "Piña, piña."

The beggar folded his body over his bolsa. The gang of boys pounced, kicked the beggar's ribs. Eduardo could see only the back of the beggar's brown coat puffing out like a bird's feathers.

One boy jerked the bolsa from its strap and sprinted into a straggly grove, a lean shadow among the white-barked trees. The others kicked the beggar again and again. They kicked, cursed, grunted, laughed. Dust as fine as incense rose around them.

"I have it," shouted the boy in the trees.

"Get out of here," the fruit vendor growled at Eduardo. "You are like animals. Animals! Mierda! Get out of here." He pitched a mango pit and it landed in dirt at their feet.

A morsel of fruit clung to the pit. Sunlight shone on the fleck of mango as it flew but it was dusty now, wasted. The molasses taste of the brown sugar had made Eduardo's stomach growl. He pulled Marta by the hand and walked across the street, walked away from trouble, thinking, We are in the capital now and we must never carry a bolsa.

The Nicaraguan National Cathedral in Managua was not a sacred place. Kate Banner ventured inside despite that; she wanted to see the damage for herself. Weeds had taken over the sanctuary; statues had fallen out of their niches, their porcelain fragments long since ground into dust. Piss and shit everywhere, broken glass winking, black streaks from mortar fire staining the columns.

She picked her way to the foot of the altar. Some evenings, on her way home from the clinic, she glimpsed men playing softball inside the cathedral. Still, it was not hard to imagine that it had once given refuge to women, women tired of babies crying and children pulling and men reaching into their blouses. Christ loved women and they love Him. She pictured the Nicaraguan women in the cathedral praying for their men to quit drinking or praying for Somoza's plane to crash, whatever they had prayed for. She thought of the quiet of the cathedral, the peace of it, the gratitude of the women.

And then a witchlike voice spoke. "Brigadista!"

Kate's heart sped up. "Qué pasa?" she asked, startled, peering around.

An old man broke cover from behind a marble column. Sunshine half hid his face, sunshine pouring through the caved-in roof. "Brigadista, brigadista, brigadista," sing-songy like a bully, he said, "You do not belong here." A few steps above her, his hands clutching weeds. Dancing wickedly in rags. Skin and bones. Kate thought that she could smell him, smegma, sweat, piss and all.

She ran from the altar, tripped, stumbled to the entry.

"Go home, brigadista. Go home." He fired a bit of gravel and cackled.

On the street the people waited endlessly for a bus. There weren't enough buses; because of the embargo, vehicles had been abandoned all over Nicaragua. Sweat ran down her sides. She sweated all the way to the apartment.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 7 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 1, 2013


    He walks in on accident and sees Kellen crying.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 30, 2013

    Kellen & Ysaki

    *they argue* *Kellen sighs* No Ysaki!! Im not ignor-- *Ysaki's face grows redder* Then why'd you block my fuc<_>king number Kellen!? You never fuc<_>king listen to me!!? *Kellen looks close to tear* Thats not true! I just blocked you becau--*Ysaki cuts him off* Im TIRED of excuses. Im leaving. Goodbye Kellen. *Kellen grabs his arm* sorry..**Ysaki doesnt even look at him and he walks away slamming the door behind him* *Kellen sits on th bed and bursts into tears*

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 21, 2004


    A disappointment. This novel hammers its political points home so relentlessly that the reader is numbed by the inevitable end. Is there no one in Central America who is not either a saint or on the take? The lead character is a nurse unable to diagnose her own major depression and who thus spends months being ineffective and limiting her own ability to help.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 1, 2000


    This finely-crafted first novel absorbed me from the first page to the last. I was left with images, questions, and a stronger appreciation for the need for humans of courage to work for justice where there is none. The author, often in poetic language, conveyed the abilities of people to love and give, and she contrasted this with our abilities to do evil to each other. The relationships between kindness and justice and thoughtlessness and injustice were ever-present in this novel. The characters were well-developed, their relationships were authentic, and the descriptions of Central America were beautifully done. I usually dispose of books once they are read. Not this one! It will stay on my bookshelf along side THE GRAPES OF WRATH, CRY THE BELOVED COUNTRY, THE COLOR PURPLE, and other masterpieces that focus on the travesties that come when justice is denied. I look forward to Patricia Henley's next novel.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 8, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted March 4, 2012

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 2, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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