The 1937 firebombing of the Basque town of Guernica is the central event of this ambitious first novel from Seattle-based journalist Boling.
Boling has had the good sense to write under the influence of the Hemingway who gave us A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls, and the result is a moving tale of courage and resilience that celebrates the history of an embattled culture while depicting in persuasive detail the communal and representative experiences of a single extended Basque family. It begins with the Ansotegui brothers, who grow up as shepherding farmers after their widowed father abandons them. Ruled by elder sibling Justo, a patriarch even in adolescence, they go their separate ways: Second son Josepe becomes a fisherman, youngest Xabier a priest. When Spanish rebels foment civil war and undertake to humble the pride of the independent Basques, the Ansoteguis are drawn back into conflict and choice, most crucially affecting Justo’s beautiful daughter Miren and her husband Miguel (a fishing companion of Josepe’s), a beautiful blind woman (Alaia) whom Miren befriends and—most surprisingly—Father Xabier, drawn into politics as a consequence of friendship with his communicant Aguirre, president of the Basque nation. Boling juxtaposes their ordeals with German preparations for the bombing (a “test” of Nazi firepower as much as an act of solidarity with Franco’s forces), and after the carnage (horrifically described in searing narrative fragments), the experiences of relief workers, Allied pilots and various others. The Ansoteguis’ indomitable will to live is memorably symbolized by the beloved Tree of Guernica—a commanding image shown in Pablo Picasso’s eponymous mural, whose conception and creation are also part of this absorbing story.
Except for a few too many popular-fiction clichés (e.g., its women are quite improbably gorgeous and valiant), this is a very good novel indeed—and a crucial reminder that genocidal folly is never as far away from us as we might wish.