Spirits of the Ordinary


When the tale opens in the 1870s in a village in northern Mexico, the Caraval family has long been clandestine Jews. To the dismay of his parents, however, Zacarias abandons religion and wanders in the desert, searching for gold. At home in Saltillo, his wife Estela takes the rare and bold step of declaring herself independent from her husband and raises their children on her own. But as she takes a lover and tries to make her own path, she learns that the time-honored traditions of Saltillo can be tested only so...
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When the tale opens in the 1870s in a village in northern Mexico, the Caraval family has long been clandestine Jews. To the dismay of his parents, however, Zacarias abandons religion and wanders in the desert, searching for gold. At home in Saltillo, his wife Estela takes the rare and bold step of declaring herself independent from her husband and raises their children on her own. But as she takes a lover and tries to make her own path, she learns that the time-honored traditions of Saltillo can be tested only so far. Her young brother and sister, androgynous twins with unsettling powers, have already been banished north of the border, where many of the novel's events unfold. Central to the surprising destinies of these characters, and perhaps even to the future of Mexico, are the momentous events at the ancient and sacred cliff dwellings of Casas Grandes.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In her first novel, Alcal (author of the story collection Mrs. Vargas and the Dead Naturalist) has crafted a fecund fable about the convergence of cultures-Mexican, American and Jewish-along the Mexico/Texas border. The Carabajal family clandestinely practices their Jewish faith in a northern Mexican village of the 1870s. Julio spends his days in his secret Hebraic library; his wife, Mariana, hasn't uttered a word since childhood; and their son, Zacaras, who'd rather prospect for gold than learn a trade, has married a Catholic woman, Estela. Estela's family has a few secrets of their own: an intensely independent woman, Estela has raised her family single-handedly during her husband's long gold-hunting absences and has decided to cut him off financially; her younger brother and sister, twins, have been banished to Texas because of their scandalous androgyny; her unmarried daughter is pregnant; and now her own love affair with an army captain is about to be exposed, while her Zacaras is being hunted by the government for inciting a purported Indian uprising. In the tradition of Latin American literary fabulism, Alcal's seductive writing mixes fatalism and hope, logic and fantasy, to create moral, emotional and political complexities. But her characterizations and plot sparkle with a freshness that is an apt fit for the new social order she writes about with a multicultural vision notable for its lack of preachiness. Readers will be happy to learn that this enchanting episode is the first of a trilogy. (Feb.)
Library Journal
Both historically and politically relevant, this first novel from an assistant editor at the Seattle Review is dazzling in its originality, casting a fresh light on several time-worn questions: What is spiritual enlightenment? Is assimilation always bad? Is gender equity possible in a heterosexual partnership? Can personal integrity demand defiance? Set in Mexico in the 1870s, the book tells the story of the Carabajal family as it circuitously poses and debates these questions. Central to the story is the horrifying impact of the Spanish Inquisition, for 13 generations after all signs of Judaica were wiped from Spanish culture, some members of this family persist, behind bolted doors, in observing and studying Jewish rituals. For them, staying connected to their ancestral faith is paramount, and while each person's path to piety is different, each search proves powerfully moving. Alcal embellishes straightforward prose with tinges of mysticism that will entice even the most spiritually disinterested. An extraordinary debut, this tale of ordinary people in pursuit of honor, decency, and cultural connection is sure to resonate. Highly recommended.-Eleanor J. Bader, New Sch. for Social Research, New York
Book World Washington Post
A poignant tale wrapped in magic...Swirling together themes of love, family and spirituality.
New York Times Book Review
"It is testimony to Ms. Alcala's vivid talents as a storyteller, and to the mystical allure of the threads of magic realism that run through her narrative, that we come to care about many of her characters, and to wonder what destines await them in her next book."
Union-Tribune San Diego
"Kathleen Alcala evokes a unique and mysterious world, so colorful and rich that the mesmerized reader will arrive at the end fo the narrative regretful that it comes to such a sudden close."
Kirkus Reviews
Like a vivid dream, this debut novel, the first of a projected trilogy by the Mexican-American author (Mrs. Vargas and the Dead Naturalist, 1992: stories), blurs fantasy and reality as it details in luminous prose one family's search for identity and meaning.

The story is set in northern Mexico in the late 19th century, at a time when the authorities fear that the peasants and Indian tribes are about to revolt. The Roman Catholic Church is all- powerful; Jewish families like the Carabajals have long been forced to practice their faith in secret. Though Zacarìas Carabajal converted when he married Estela, his father Julio lives in expectation of the Messiah, and his mother Mariana, a mystic, has not spoken since the age of 12, when she fell into a 30-day trance. As the novel opens, Zacarìas, leaving Estela and their three children—son Gabriel and twin daughters—behind, has set off on yet another search for gold. Estela fears Zacarìas is wasting her dowry and their children's future on these futile ventures; and when Zacarìas shows no signs of returning, she embarks on a brief but intense affair with an Army doctor. Meantime, Zacarìas, frequently traveling through rough and dangerous terrain, has his own amorous diversions. While a hospitable tribal elder and an American woman photographer disguised as a man and add further color, Zacarìas's transformation from a prospector into a visionary and healer lies at the heart of the tale. It's only when the army brutally attacks the old cliff village of Casas Grandes, where Zacarìas and the followers he's gradually gathered have hidden, that he finds the answer to his long quest. Gabriel, it seems likely, will soon be called to a quest of his own.

Some characters seem more decorative than essential, but, still, Alcalá offers a beautifully imagined if quiet portrait of the insistent urgings of the human spirit.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780811814478
  • Publisher: Chronicle Books LLC
  • Publication date: 1/1/1997
  • Pages: 204
  • Product dimensions: 5.89 (w) x 8.33 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Reading Group Guide

1. Water is present throughout the novel. It provides the fountain pulse of the home of Julio and Mariana and the tableau for their visions of their son's journey. Bubbling streams carry the riches of gold and silver from deep in the earth, and a mountain waterfall sculpts the path of Zacarias' escape. In what other ways does water, or the lack of it, influence the events that unfold?

2. The only scene in a Catholic church features an impassive Virgin Mary statue. The votive candles before her illuminate the alarming amount of gold in the church. Yet for all the richness, Estela leaves feeling empty and without absolution. Father Newman proves to be the most fertile priest in all of Mexico, dishing out penances that often take nine months to complete. Does the Catholic church have any redeem-ing qualities in the lives of the Mexicans? What does this say about the perils of a religion wielding too much earthly power?

3. Gold serves as a powerful metaphor throughout the book. Though it is recognized as a barometer of wealth, the definition of that wealth varies widely -- from the economic benefits of the mineral to the suste-nance of sunlight. Why does it seem appropriate that an exhausted gold prospector emerges as a new messiah? How does his search for gold compare with other kinds of searches people make throughout their lives? What is the significance of Zacarias' use of a gold nugget as a healing totem?

4. Lizards and salamanders slither out from under rocks and across the pages of Spirits of the Ordinary. We hear of their remarkable ability to adapt to the desert and of theories that they may be the descendants of the fish that once swam in the oceanwhere there is now only desert. Matukami has a lizard tattooed on the back of his hand. Why do the Indians and even Zacarias identify so closely with the lizards?

5. Even when he experiences great pleasure, Zacarias suffers from intense headaches after making love. The post-coital headaches ensue regardless of his partner, either his wife, or his mistress and sexual tutor, Magdalena. What do you think causes these headaches?

6. Membrillo and Manzana are described as "an offense to God's natural order." People seem as drawn to them as they are perplexed. Yet the only thing Father Newman cites as a problem is that their behavior may encourage women to sit astride on their horses. What is it about the twins that so rivets and horrifies people? Do they see something in themselves that they fear? Why is it important that the androgynous twins draw equally on the powers of mysticism and science?

7. Mariana and Julio seek the same truths but take radically different paths. The mute Mariana sees the answers to her questions in the everyday things around her. Julio draws on the holy sorcery of the cabala. Does Julio's failure to see his God in the world around him condemn him to never find what he seeks? Is there something disturbing about Julio's activities with alchemy, as though he is trying to pry something out of God rather than pray to him?

8. The Indians, like the Jews, are forced to hide their faith and traditions from the punishing eyes of the Catholic church. Both groups wait for the return of their creator to free them from their oppressors. Does this liberation theology unite the two groups? Is it an important foundation for Zacarias' transformation and his acceptance by the Indians at Casas Grandes?

9. In his delirium after his illness, Zacarias says that he "remembers the future," yet another example of time twisting and turning over itself. He sees a vision of a woman at the piano, a sailor, a tiny yellow bird, and an old woman dressed like a gypsy bending over a strange shiny road. What is the meaning of this vision? Does everyone who receives a vision get the chance to learn its meaning? If not, what use do they make of these visions?

10. An important result of the strong community created by the Indians is the transmission of cultural heritage. Their history and tradition grows and is enhanced with each passing generation. Do we continue to do this today? If not, what are the consequences for the heritage of our civilization?

Copyright © 1998. Published by Harcourt, Inc.

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