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 Zacarças 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, Zacarças, leaving Estela and their three children--son Gabriel and twin daughters--behind, has set off on yet another search for gold. Estela fears Zacarças is wasting her dowry and their children's future on these futile ventures; and when Zacarças shows no signs of returning, she embarks on a brief but intense affair with an Army doctor. Meantime, Zacarças, 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, Zacarças'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 Zacarças 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.