Names on a Mapby Benjamin Alire Sáenz
The Espejo family of El Paso, Texas, is like so many others in America in 1967, trying to make sense of a rapidly escalating war they feel does not concern them. But when the eldest son, Gustavo, a complex and errant rebel, receives a certified letter ordering him to report to basic training, he chooses to flee instead to Mexico. Retreating back to the land of his
The Espejo family of El Paso, Texas, is like so many others in America in 1967, trying to make sense of a rapidly escalating war they feel does not concern them. But when the eldest son, Gustavo, a complex and errant rebel, receives a certified letter ordering him to report to basic training, he chooses to flee instead to Mexico. Retreating back to the land of his grandfather—a foreign country to which he is no longer culturally connected—Gustavo sets into motion a series of events that will have catastrophic consequences on the fragile bonds holding the family together.
Told with raw power and searing bluntness, and filled with important themes as immediate as today’s headlines, Names on a Map is arguably the most important work to date of a major American literary artist.
In Sáenz's lyrical sixth novel, Octavio Espejo leads an ordinary life in multiethnic 1967 El Paso: he sells insurance and is raising three children with his wife, Lourdes. Octavio was brought to the U.S. from revolutionary Mexico as a child and talks about the family's roots across the border, but on the whole the family has silently Americanized. The Vietnam War and the counterculture, however, begin to change how his children conceive of themselves and their lives-teenaged twins Gustavo and Xochil in particular. Gus must make choices about facing the draft; Xochil, a rape victim when she was 12, attempts to reconcile the era's passions with internal bitterness. Sáenz shifts perspectives fluidly among the family, relatives and friends. The climax is given away early, keeping the focus on the manner in which the characters come to know themselves-or fail to. The result is a beautiful mosaic of the borderlands as women's liberation and the Chicano movement gain traction. (Feb.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Transpiring during a week in September 1967, this fourth major novel by Saenz focuses on the confluence of two symbiotic events in the Espejo family: the death of Grandmother Rosario and her 18-year-old grandson's receipt of a U.S. Army induction notice. Saenz creatively and effectively weaves these stories together using several alternating threads: all five members of the Espejo family plus two Vietnam soldiers narrate their respective stories. Though the grandson, Gustavo, eventually emerges as the lead character as he struggles over whether to obey the draft orders, the other characters battle their own private wars, such as rape and marital discord. Like his 2005 In Perfect Light, this novel transcends its setting-El Paso's Hispanic community-and will appeal to a much wider readership. Saenz's innate understanding and vivid description of the nation's angst at the time over the Vietnam War is commendable; it is perhaps no accident that the book's publication date coincides with the 40th anniversary of the Tet Offensive. Well written, moving, and highly interesting, this is Saenz's best work yet. Highly recommended, especially for public libraries.
Read an Excerpt
Names on a Map
El Paso, Texas, Saturday, September 16, 1967
An unsettling calmness in the predawn breeze.
A hint of a storm.
The faint smell of rain.
A coolness in the air.
Summer has lasted and lasted. And lasted.
Four o'clock in the morning.
The house is dark. The members of the Espejo family are in bed. Some are asleep. Some are restless, awake, disturbed. Each of them alone, listening to their own interior breezes.
Octavio—husband, father, son—is asleep. He is lost in an unwelcome dream, a gust of wind kicking up the loose fragments of memory, grains of sand in the eye. He is struggling to see. He is struggling to understand what his father is saying to him, his father who has been dead for more than three years. He has had this dream before. His father is trying to tell him something, give him words of wisdom or a piece of advice or some essential bit of information he needs to survive. Maybe his father is speaking in Spanish. Maybe his father is speaking in English. It is impossible to tell. His father's lips are moving. But the words? Where are the words? His father is young and he, Octavio, is a boy—small—and he understands that they still live in Mexico. All his dreams take place in Mexico. Mexico before the fall. They do not yet live in exile. When he wakes, Octavio will not remember the dream.
Lourdes is awake. Sleep is not something she needs—it is something she endures. She is listening to her husband's mumblings. She is accustomed to his dreams. He has never been a calm sleeper.Whatever disturbs him by day will hunt him down as he sleeps. She shakes him gently, comforts him. "Shhhh, amor." His mumblings recede. She smiles. When he wakes, she will ask him about the dream. He will say he does not remember. You do not want to remember, that is what she will think, but she will say nothing and smile and ask him if he wants to know what he was mumbling. He will say it does not matter.
She looks at the time on the alarm clock and wonders if Rosario will make it through the day. "Maybe today I will die. Oh, today let me die." Rosario repeats her refrain every day. She recites the lines as if she is in a play and she waits for Lourdes to answer, a one-woman Greek chorus: "Today, I will die. Oh, today, I will die." And then they will pause, look into each other's eyes—and laugh. It has become a joke between them—a joke and a ritual. Lourdes does not want to think about what she will do when the old woman dies. She has become addicted to caring for her mother-in-law. But it is more than an addiction. So much more than that.
Rosario, too, is no longer asleep. Every morning she wakes to the darkness of the new day. It is a curse, an affliction she has suffered for years, this lying awake every morning with nothing to do, this measuring of the hours that her life has become, this searching the room with eyes that are failing, this knowledge that you now inhabit a body that is shriveling and a mind that is ever alert, but a mind that lives now only in the past. She tries to think of something else, something kinder than this thing that is her life. Is this a life? But, today, she can think of nothing kind. Kindness has exiled itself from her world.
She is remembering the day her husband died, a perfect morning, the garden bathed in honeysuckles. "I'm going to read the paper," he said as he stepped into the backyard. "And then I'm going to take a nap. And then, who knows, I might just die." He laughed and kissed her as if she were still a girl.
He did read the newspaper.
He did take a nap.
He did die.
It was she who found him. She sees herself trying to wake him. She sees the smile on his face. Bastard, you left me here. I don't forgive you. Oh, today let me die.
Xochil, the only daughter in the house, is twisting and turning in her bed. No rest or peace in her sleep. Like her father, what is left unresolved tracks her down like a wounded animal. She is arguing with herself. She wants this boy. She is yearning to let him love her. She utters his name—Jack—and just as the name slips out of her mouth, she becomes still and quiet.
When she wakes, she will think of this boy, picture his face, his lips, the look of want in his eyes, blue as the sea. She will picture his hands, larger than hers but trembling with the same want that is in her. She will shake her head. No, no, no, no, no. And then she will reach under the bed and take out the picture she keeps as a comfort.
She will stare at the picture. It is not an image of Jack, but a photograph of her and Gustavo and Charlie. They are safe, her brothers, the harbor to which she's tied her boat. She is smiling, Charlie is laughing, and Gustavo is gazing past the camera. She always wonders what Gustavo is looking at. His eyes are staring at a future. That is what she will think to herself. The future. Let it be beautiful. Let it be as beautiful as you.
Gustavo and Charlie are sleeping in the room down the hall.
Gustavo, half asleep, half awake, wonders which he prefers, the sleeping or the waking. He wonders, too, if today is the day the news will arrive. He has been waiting for the news for what seems an eternity. The waiting, the pacing in his mind, the paralysis, the endless litany of cigarettes, the impossibility of escape, the inability to come up with a solution. The waiting is a limbo, the one he swore he did not believe in. Day after day, he hides the apprehension.Names on a Map
A Novel. Copyright © by Benjamin Saenz. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Meet the Author
Benjamin Alire Sáenz is the author of In Perfect Light, Carry Me Like Water, and House of Forgetting, as well as the author of several children’s books. He won the American Book Award for his collection of poems Calendar of Dust. Sáenz is the chair of the creative writing department at the University of Texas-El Paso.
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While America¿s ¿Greatest Generation¿ had World War II and today¿s generation has the ongoing Gulf War, a generation that lived through the Sixties had Vietnam, a military conflict that indisputably defined an era and carved a permanent wound into the nation¿s psyche.----- Award-winning author and poet Benjamin Alire Sáenz has boldly sidestepped contemporary history and set his sights on revisiting our nation¿s turbulent past to tenderly tell the story of an immigrant family trying to adapt to its adopted land while coming to terms with the true cost of freedom in America.----- Set in 1967, Sáenz¿s ¿Names on a Map¿ follows the Espejo family of El Paso, Texas, during a momentous week in September when a draft notice forces them to drop the veil of secrecy that cloaks their fears and causes them to confront their internal conflicts etched by customs accepted in Mexico, but found to be out of date north of the Rio Grande.----- Octavio Espejo is the son of a wealthy family that was run out of Mexico during a bloody revolution when he was a child. Now, as patriarch of a close-knit family in the United States, he tries to rule the clan with an iron hand only to find that strict adherence to house rules causes irreparable rifts in personal relationships.----- Gustavo, Octavio¿s son, is the recipient of the draft notice that sets into motion the novel¿s overarching theme of loyalty to family, country and most importantly, one¿s self. He broods over the price America extracts from its populace in order to sustain peace on the home front and the realization that dodging the draft may tarnish the family¿s standing in the community more than his own reputation.----- Sáenz tells his story through different points of views with voices that are unique, yet also reminiscent of the nation¿s conscience at the height of the Vietnam War.----- Among the characters that emerge from the novel to leave a lasting impression is Abe, a young Marine fighting in Da Nang. He doesn¿t want to think of home, yet finds that home is all he can think about¿especially when it comes to his unrequited love, Xochil.----- Xochil is Gustavo¿s twin sister, who is fighting her own personal battles with society. She learned early on in life that wars come in many forms and that no matter where the battlefield lies, a thousand other wars are being fought at the same time by the same participants, with no two skirmishes being exactly alike.----- Finally there¿s Lourdes, the matriarch who is the glue that keeps the family together. By the novel¿s end, she comes to terms with what she¿s known all along: sometimes you have to give up the things you hold dear in order to hold on to them a little while longer.----- ¿Names on a Map¿ is an emotional journey down memory lane that reminds its readers that war indiscriminately affects everyone, extolling a price paid for in flesh, blood, and the loss of innocence in people of all ages.
Great book, easy to read. The story behind it hit home for me.
In 1967 El Paso, insurance salesman Octavio Espejo is happily married to Lourdes as they raise three children together. However, the blight in his mind to his American lifestyle is his Mexican roots Octavio has not been back or seen his family ever since he was ferried across the Rio Grande as a child.--------- However, his children begin to reconsider their national identity. Teenager Gustavo has received the certified ¿Greetings¿ letter directing him to report to basic training which in the Chicano border communities means tours of Viet Nam. He does not want to go as he is becoming aware of freedom fighting in America not Southeast Asia. His twin sister Xochil still struggles to overcome her anger and acrimony over being raped when she was twelve years old. Both wonder if America is where they belong.----------- This is a strong timely historical character driven thriller as Benjamin Alire Saenz enables the reader to look deep into the Espejo family whose members each struggle differently with assimilation at a time of women¿s liberation, civil rights especially the growing Chicano awareness, and cutting across all is Nam. NAMES ON A MAP is insightful as the children reconsider and resist Americanization understanding the nightmare while their parents have doubts but embrace the dream.------- Harriet Klausner
...but the ending??? "names" needs a sequel or some expanded insights into why the Espejo Family could not simply eventually spend vacations together in Mexico...or meet at the border in Juarez after Gustavo cut his hair and grew a beard...why did the kids never see each other again - or did they - and they just never kissed or hugged...? Did Octavio find his son? More, please - I love these people.