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 Zacarâ‰¥as 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, Zacarâ‰¥as, leaving Estela and their three children--son Gabriel and twin daughters--behind, has set off on yet another search for gold. Estela fears Zacarâ‰¥as is wasting her dowry and their children's future on these futile ventures; and when Zacarâ‰¥as shows no signs of returning, she embarks on a brief but intense affair with an Army doctor. Meantime, Zacarâ‰¥as, 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, Zacarâ‰¥as'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 Zacarâ‰¥as 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, Alcal offers a beautifully imagined if quiet portrait of the insistent urgings of the human spirit.