Tales from the Town of Widows: And Chronicles from the Land of Men

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One Sunday morning, a band of guerrillas comes to Mariquita and takes all the men away, leaving behind only the priest and a fair-skinned boy disguised as a little girl. Without men, the small Colombian mountain village becomes a sinking wasteland filled with women resigned to food shortages, littered streets, and mourning. But Rosalba viuda de Pati?o, wife of the former police sergeant, envisions a different future for the town of widows. Declaring herself magistrate, she promises to instill law and order, and ...

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Tales from the Town of Widows

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Overview

One Sunday morning, a band of guerrillas comes to Mariquita and takes all the men away, leaving behind only the priest and a fair-skinned boy disguised as a little girl. Without men, the small Colombian mountain village becomes a sinking wasteland filled with women resigned to food shortages, littered streets, and mourning. But Rosalba viuda de Patiño, wife of the former police sergeant, envisions a different future for the town of widows. Declaring herself magistrate, she promises to instill law and order, and restore the failing economy and infrastructure—and proceeds to create a utopia far greater than any revolutionary's imagined ideal society.

Deft, rich, and darkly humorous, Tales from the Town of Widows marks the arrival of an unforgettable new literary talent.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
On November 15, 1992, the men of the tiny Colombian town of Mariquita are forced by guerillas to join or die on the spot, which some do. The town's women enter a particularly grievous widowhood. Chapters covering the years that follow chronicle the town's decay and introduce women struggling to survive without men and without meaningful government. Cleotilde Guarnizo, a traveler seeking respite, is hired to be the schoolteacher. Dona Emilia laments the loss of clients for her brothel. Magnolia Morales, meanwhile, forms a group devoted to reminiscing about the men, which becomes a "magical whorehouse," where lonely women seduce men from neighboring Honda before they reach Dona Emilia's. After a storm washes away the access road leading to the village, the citizens no longer have contact with the outside world, and their haphazard magistrate Rosalba introduces the "Procreation Campaign," where 29 women have sexual relations with the lascivious priest (who turns out to be sterile). Throughout the narrative are short, first-person testimonies from the men, detailing their exploits (which sadden some while making others rejoice). Although Canon, making his debut, crafts characters that shine, the book plods, only picking up speed when the women make a final attempt at uniting and reorganizing their community. (Jan.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Get ready for a refreshing dip into the waters of a rich imagination with this debut novel, which centers on the lives of 100 contemporary women living in a remote Colombian village called Mariquita. After the village's men are killed or forced to join a guerrilla group, the women eke out a squalid existence, enduring drought, food shortages, and a flu epidemic. Faced with a hopeless future, they reject the traditional male concept of governance and rebuild an independent, caring community closely connected with nature. Contrasting with the humorous if sometimes disturbing events in the lives of these uncommon women is the hostile world of the village men, who are involved in gruesome warfare and torture. The story of these women touches our deepest emotions and reveals fundamental needs and concerns, such as the vulnerability felt by Rasalba, the town's new magistrate, after she accepts the love of another woman. This exciting book confirms the idea that our world would be far better off in the caring hands of women-especially the women from Mariquita. Highly recommended.-David A. Berona, Plymouth State Univ., NH Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Slyly pushing the envelope Aristophanes opened with Lysistrata, debut novelist Ca--n exultantly sets up the saga of Colombian women on top. It's a humdrum 1990s Sunday in Mariquita when-poof!-all the men are gone. Yet another gang of Marx-lite rebels and Che-wannabes is fomenting yet another Colombian revolution, shanghaiing anyone with testicles into its motley ranks. Stealing off with every woman's husband, all the rice and the town's single Commie true believer (a schoolteacher who'd coaxed the citizenry into naming kids Hochiminh and Trotsky), the pistoleros depart. The women who remain are marvelous. Matriarch Do-a Victoria has three daughters with weird, fairy-tale attributes. Orquidea boasts chin warts that "looked like golden raisins." Gardenia gives off a "carrion-like stench." Those two are virgins; their roguish sister Magnolia has "the legs of a man, hairy and muscular." Do-a Victoria saves her only son, Julio Cesar, by dressing him in his sisters' first communion dress; after the danger has passed, he decides he digs the new look and opts for permanent curls and skirts. Other vivid personalities include Rosalba, the police sergeant's widow, who takes over as magistrate and tries to toughen up the women mourning the loss of their men. (She plans an edict: "Prohibit the use of the word ‘Help.' ") Joining with Rosalba, sage/crone/schoolteacher Cleotilde hopes to rewrite history and usher in a new era, complete with time told by the menstrual cycle and months renamed after Mariquita's strongest women. At first, this fresh HerLand falters. The power goes out; famine threatens. Just as the ladies are moving from baby steps to great strides, a shocking development unfolds. Afternearly 20 years, four men return. Paradise lost? Or Paradise regained?Prime magic realism a la Marquez, Cortazar and Vargas Llosa, updated with a pop-culture twist. Agent: Lisa Bankoff/ICM
Maureen Howard
Cañón is a gifted storyteller...Tales from the Town of Widows, is a book of wonders with great political purpose.
Booklist
The characterizations are drawn as compellingly as the storyline itself, which simply gets increasingly delicious as the pages turn.
Pages Magazine
The author spent five years crafting his highly imaginative debut...and the result is this stunning, unique novel.
Washington Post Book World
“Enchanting . . . a rollicking and often shocking tale that Cañón tells with charm and bite.”
Elle
“Brilliant…a mesmerizing debut novel.”
Joan Silber
A much-loved tradition of Colombian fiction has been gorgeously re-imagined.
Elle
“Brilliant…a mesmerizing debut novel.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061140389
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 1/2/2007
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.22 (d)

Meet the Author

James Cañón was born and raised in Colombia. He moved to New York to study English and later earned his MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University. Cañón was awarded the 2001 Henfield Prize for Excellence in Fiction. He lives in New York.
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Read an Excerpt

Tales from the Town of Widows


By James Canon

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2007 James Canon
All right reserved.



Chapter One

The Day the Men Disappeared

Mariquita, November 15, 1992

The day the men disappeared started as a typical Sunday morning in Mariquita: the roosters forgot to announce dawn, the sexton overslept, the church bell didn't summon the faithful to attend the early service, and (as on every Sunday for the past ten years) only one person showed up for six o'clock mass: Doña Victoria viuda de Morales, the Morales widow. The widow was accustomed to this routine, and so was el padre Rafael. The first few times it had been uncomfortable for both of them: the small priest almost invisible behind the pulpit, delivering his homily, the widow sitting alone in the first row, tall and buxom, quite still, her head covered with a black veil that dropped over her shoulders. Eventually they decided to ignore the ceremony and often sat together in a corner drinking coffee and gossiping. On the day the men disappeared, el padre Rafael complained to the widow about the severe decrease in the church's revenue, and they discussed ways to revive the tithe among the faithful. After their chat, they agreed to skip confession, but the widow received communion nonetheless. Then she said a few prayers before returning to her house.

Through the open window of her living room, the Morales widow heard the street vendors trying to interest early risers in their delicacies:"Morcillas!" "Empanadas!" "Chicharrones!" She closed the window, more bothered by the unpleasant smell of blood sausages and fried food than by the strident voices announcing them. She woke up her three daughters and her only son, then went back to the kitchen, where she whistled a hymn while she made breakfast for her family.

By eight in the morning most doors and windows in Mariquita were open. Men played tangos and boleros on old phonographs, or listened to the news on the radio. On the main street, the town's magistrate, Jacinto Jiménez, and the police sergeant, Napoleón Patiño, dragged a big round table and six folding chairs outside under a tall mango tree to play Parcheesi with a few selected neighbors. Ten minutes later, in the southwest corner of the plaza, Don Marco Tulio Cifuentes, the tallest man in Mariquita and owner of El Rincón de Gardel, the town's bar, carried out his last two drunk customers, one on each shoulder. He laid them on the ground, side by side, then closed his business and went home. At eight thirty, inside the Barbería Gómez, a small building across from Mariquita's municipal building, Don Vicente Gómez began to sharpen razors and sterilize combs and brushes with alcohol, while his wife, Francisca, cleaned the mirrors and windows with damp newspaper. In the meantime, two streets down at the marketplace, the police sergeant's wife, Rosalba Patiño, bargained with a red-faced farmer for half a dozen ears of corn, while older women under green awnings sold everything from calf's foot jelly to bootleg cassettes of Michael Jackson's Thriller. At eight thirty-five, in the open field in front of the Morales widow's house, the Restrepo brothers (all seven of them) began to warm up before their weekly soccer game while waiting for David Pérez, the butcher's grandson, who owned the only ball. Five minutes later, two old maids with long hair and slightly square bodies walked arm in arm around the plaza, cursing their spinsterhood and kicking aside the stray dogs that crossed their way. At eight fifty, three blocks down from the plaza, in the house with the green facade located in the middle of the block, Ángel Alberto Tamacá, the schoolteacher, tossed in bed sweating and dreaming of Amorosa, the woman he loved. At three minutes before nine, on the outskirts of Mariquita, inside La Casa de Emilia (the town's brothel), Doña Emilia (herself) passed from room to room. She woke up her last customers, warned them that they were going to be in serious trouble with their wives if they didn't leave that minute, and yelled at one of the girls for not keeping her room tidy.

Immediately after the ninth stroke of the church bell, while its echo was still resounding in the sexton's ears, three dozen men in worn-out greenish uniforms appeared from every corner of Mariquita shooting their rifles and shouting, "Viva la Revolución!" They walked slowly along the narrow streets, their sunburned faces painted black and their shirts sticking to their slender bodies with sweat. "We're the people's army," one of them declared through a megaphone. "We're fighting so that all Colombians can work and be paid according to their needs, but we can't do it without your support!" The streets had emptied; even the stray animals had fled when they heard the first shots. "Please," the man continued, "help us with anything you can spare."

Inside their house, the Morales widow, her three daughters and her son, were clearing the dining table. "Just what we needed," the widow grumbled. "Another damn guerrilla group. I'm so tired of these bands of godless beggars coming through here every year."

Her two younger daughters, Gardenia and Magnolia, rushed to the window hoping to catch a glimpse of the rebels, while the widow's only son, Julio César, clutched his mother fearfully. Orquidea, the oldest, looked at her two sisters and shook her head in disapproval.

Orquidea Morales had lost interest in men some five years before. She knew they didn't find her attractive, and at her age--thirty-one--she wasn't about to expose herself to rejection. She had pointy ears, a hook nose and a mouth too small for her big, crooked teeth. She also had three warts on her chin that looked like golden raisins. When Orquidea was born, these unpleasant protuberances had been on her cheeks, but as she grew up, they'd migrated down to her chin. She hoped the warts would keep moving and eventually settle in a less visible part of her body. Orquidea claimed to be a virgin, a statement that had been . . .



Continues...

Excerpted from Tales from the Town of Widows by James Canon Copyright © 2007 by James Canon. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Reading Group Guide

When a band of guerrillas arrives in the mountain village of Mariquita and forcibly "recruits" all the men to fight for the communist cause, the women are left behind to fend for themselves. Now virtual widows, they must overcome their grief, fear, ignorance and passivity in order to survive. As they go about rebuilding their lives, the women of Mariquita challenge the male orientation that once governed them so completely and eventually replace it with a vision all their own: an all-female utopia founded on the very socialist ideals the guerrillas claim to be fighting for.

Exquisitely wrought, remarkably original, James Cañón's stunning debut marks the arrival of an unforgettable new literary talent.

Questions for Discussion

QUESTIONS:

1. A reviewer described Tales from the Town of Widows as "prime magical realism a la García Márquez, Cortázar and Vargas Llosa." Do you agree with that characterization? How would you characterize this book? How does this book compare to other South American novels?

2. When their men are taken away by communist guerrillas, the women of Mariquita lose their family providers. What else, in your opinion, did the women of Mariquita lose? What did they gain?

3. Cañón's novel puts forth a fascinating societal question: What if all the men in a town were wiped out in a war, and the women were left alone? Do you think males are expendable? What would a community without men in America be like? What new systems would you put in place if you were left to develop a whole new way of coping with the trials of everyday life? Could you impact the world in new and improved ways?

4. Cañón challenges the modern ideas of gender and sexuality, questions whether socialist principles are the evil we believe them to be, and above all, provokes new ways to view equality and leadership in today's often confused social atmosphere. Do you agree? Why?

5. Cañón's choice to alternate the women's stories with vignettes from the world the men found themselves trapped in has triggered different reactions. In what ways do you find this technique successful or unsuccessful?

6. Jonathan Kirsch from The Washington Post Book World Review, wrote that "Male violence rather than magic realism, in fact, is the unsettling subtext of Tales From the Town of Widows." Do you agree? What was your reaction to the vignettes from the men?

7. Although Colombia has the second largest displaced population in the world after Sudan, its war—the longest and bloodiest civil war in this hemisphere—has gotten little attention on human rights and refugee issues. Do you think this book can play a role in achieving social justice in Colombia? Do you think a book of fiction can influence the politics of a region? How?

8. At the end of the book, Mariquita's all-female utopia is put to the test when four men return to the village, forcing the women to negotiate between the world they've lost and the imperfect, peaceful existence they've created. What do you think of the women's final decision? Does it seem like a realistic solution?

9. The book embodies many contradictions. It is at once lyrical and brutal, subversive and idealistic, satirical and affecting, wickedly funny and profoundly sad. Do you like this approach? In what ways do you find this style effective or ineffective?

10. The author chose to write his debut novel in English, a language he did not begin speaking until 1995. Why do you think Cañón chose to write it in English? Do you think this would be a completely different book had he written it in his first language? How do you think it would be different?

11. One of the biggest debates about this book is whether or not it is a feminist novel. What are your thoughts on this issue?

12. In an interview, Cañón said that the last line of his novel was meant to be a reply to One Hundred Years of Solitude's last line, in which "races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth." Does Tales from the Town of Widows' last line reflect Cañón's hopeful attitude toward the future of his "race"? The future of Colombian women? Or the future of women in general?

13. Is Tales from the Town of Widows a tragedy, romance, comedy, or tragicomedy?

14. Do you think the story's ending would have been different if a woman had written the book? How would you end the story?

15. What does the opening scene reveal about the women of Mariquita?

16. "This is and will always be a land of men," a guerrilla boy said to the Morales widow. What are the implications of this phrase? Is this true for Latin America? How does the boy's comment fit into the context of the novel?

17. Julio César becomes permanently mute after the guerrilla attack in the first chapter. Discuss the symbolism behind his muteness.

18. Discuss the reasons that make Rosalba take up the office of magistrate of Mariquita.

19. What makes Rosalba such an engaging character? What are her more appealing attributes?

20. What is Rosalba searching for? Does she ever find it? Does it find her?

21. In what ways does Cleotilde de Guarnizo defy popular notions of older women?

22. Besides being widows, what do Rosalba, Ubaldina, and Cleotilde have in common?

23. Discuss the reasons why Rosalba and Cleotilde never get along in the novel.

24. What role does Padre Rafael play in Mariquita's fate?

25. Discuss the hidden reasons why Padre Rafael kills the four boys.

26. Chapter Five begins with Francisca having a dream in which the men of Mariquita return, only they're faceless and naked, and all of them have small penises and enormous testicles. Discuss the symbolism behind this image. What's the significance of the dream in Francisca's tale?

27. At the end of Chapter Six, Santiago takes Pablo to the river. "He fixed his gaze on Pablo's face, filling himself full of the man he loved, and gently began to release his hold on him, his solid arms slowly separating from the smallness of his lover's back, giving him to the current like a gift." In what ways is the novel as a whole about the importance of letting go of the past in order to move forward?

28. Chapter Nine poses a question about the importance of time. "Time only exists in your mind, Magistrate," Magnolia says to Rosalba. Do you agree with Magnolia? Do you think time is an overrated concept? If you were in the same situation, how would you keep track of time?

29. Discuss the Theory of Female Time of Rosalba and Cleotilde. What are the benefits of it? What are the disadvantages?

30. In Chapter 11, a cow named Perestroika saves the village. What does the cow's name suggest?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 7 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 27, 2010

    REALLY WONDERFUL!

    I must confess that this novel had been on my "to read" shelf for over a year until 3 weeks ago, when I decided to give it a chance. I absolutely loved it. It's a female empowering tale that's made real by the transparent and precise psychology of each character. It's funny and sad, lyrical and plain, and it delivers a strong message of equality that's even more powerful when you know it's coming from a South American male author writing in his second language. Highly recommended for those with an open mind and somewhat liberal views.

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

    Posted November 20, 2007

    Intriguing, Magical and Beautifully-Crafted.

    After the men from a small Colombian village are taken away, the women must reinvent their world. The intriguing story draws on reality and the super natural. It's told from different perspectives of the women left in town. The lively and often humorous narrative is broken up with short, diary-like entries written by Men fighting the Colombian war. Canon tackles the issues of a feminine society while educating readers about the politics of his country. The ending is absolutely satisfying and, though one may not agree with everything Canon tells us, he always leaves room for us, readers, to draw our own conclusions. A wonderful, wonderful read!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 14, 2007

    A reviewer

    One of the ten best books I've read this year. A wonderful story that involves politics, sexuality, history and even sociology. Never heavy-handed actually, very funny and easy to digest. I'm amazed that a man can write from a woman's point of view with such sensitivity and sensibility. Canon ages his characters in a very realistic way, but with a degree of tenderness that's admirable. Tales from the town of widows is a triumph, one that I highly recommend to everyone who enjoys smart, witty writing.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 11, 2007

    Tales from the Town of Widows: And Chronicles from the Land of Men

    I just finished reading Tales from the town of widows and felt compelled to share my thoughts with anyone out there: the novel is provocative and marvelously written. Canon's imagination simply has no limits. His characters are beautifully portrayed and developed. The arguably main character named Rosalba is destined to become a fiction icon. This is one of those books you'll want to re- read in a few months and then again

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 30, 2007

    Tales from the Town of Widows: And Chronicles from the Land of Men

    This debut novel has everything one can possibly want from a book: a fascinating plot, enlightenment, gender issues, religion, history, poetry, humor, debate. I love every page of it. I would agree that some sections are slow, but I only saw that as an advantage: it allowed me to savor every sentence. It's perfect for book groups. I recommend it highly to ANY AND EVERY WOMAN.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 25, 2007

    An Amazing Book!

    I am only halfway through this book, but had to read the customer reviews, which there were none. I am loving this book and find it hard to put down.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 7, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

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