Spirits Of The Ordinary

Spirits Of The Ordinary

by Kathleen Alcala

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This “strong and finely rendered book” (Larry McMurtry) takes us to the Mexican-american border in the 1870s, conjuring up a magical tale of faith, gold, and family passions that “echoes the style of Isabel Allende and Laura Esquivel” (Washington Post Book World). Winner of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Book Award.


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This “strong and finely rendered book” (Larry McMurtry) takes us to the Mexican-american border in the 1870s, conjuring up a magical tale of faith, gold, and family passions that “echoes the style of Isabel Allende and Laura Esquivel” (Washington Post Book World). Winner of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Book Award.

A spectacular tapestry of folklore, spirituality, and landscape, this extraordinary first novel vividly blurs fantasy and reality as it details one family's search for identity. In a small village in northern Mexico, the Carabajals have long been practicing their Jewish faith in secret. The father, Julio, spends his days dabbling with alchemy. His wife, Mariana, cannot speak but is clairvoyant. Their son has allied himself with a Catholic woman and is obsessed with his search for gold. Central to the surprising destinies of these characters are the momentous events and the ancient and sacred cliff dwellings of Casas Grandes, high in the mountains. This story of two cultures, of the elusive bonds of love and faith, is dazzling in its originality. It is for all readers who loved Allende's The House of Spirits or Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate.

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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

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Harvest Book Series
Product dimensions:
5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.58(d)

What People are saying about this

Alberto Rios
"This book entered my dreams. Spirits of the Ordinary is an immediately fresh and engaging weave of voices set earlier in this century and ranging easily above any fences separating Mexico and the United States. Following one family's obsessions, it explores the centries old but hidden Jewish heritage exhibited even still in the small details of so many contemporary Mexican families lives. This novel unerringly details a range of human dimension not easily forgotten. I am ready for more."
Larry McMurthy
"Kathleen Alcala is a writer with beautiful gifts. Her prose is continually arresting -- there's a spirit in which it is not ordinary. She has given us a strong and finely rendered book in which passions both ordinary and extraordinary are made vivid and convincing."

Meet the Author

Kathleen Alcala is the author of Mrs. Vargas and the Dead Naturalist and Spirits of the Ordinary, a highly praised novel that received the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Assocaition Book Award.

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