The making of a young medicine woman in 19th-century Mexico. Urrea, a Mexican-American best known for his prizewinning nonfiction (The Devil’s Highway, 2004, etc.), has based his leisurely account on the life of an ancestor.
Cayetana Chavez is 14 when she gives birth to Teresita, the future healer. Cayetana herself is known as the hummingbird, God’s messenger, and even more auspicious is the red triangle on her child’s forehead. Teresita’s birth takes place on one of the four ranches belonging to Tomás Urrea (the author hasn’t changed the family name), who is one of the Yori, or white masters; his Indian cowboys and fieldhands are the People, or, in the author’s compelling image, nails destined for the hammer. Teresita is one of Tomás’s many love children, and he will eventually acknowledge her, for he has always been fond of the People and is a decent man, despite his philandering. His story is interwoven with that of Teresita, who is abandoned by her mother and abused by an evil aunt until the old medicine woman Huila offers her protection. In 1880, Tomás decides to move everybody north to another ranch that will provide greater safety from the long-time dictator Porfirio Díaz (the political context is sketchy). Teresita, now 15, comes into her own as midwife and healer—until she is raped and apparently killed by a miner. After she comes back to life during her own wake, the pilgrims start arriving by the thousands, though Teresita denies she is a saint and the nonbeliever Tomás deplores the invasion of his ranch. Eventually, the dictator Díaz, getting reports of an insurrection, orders the capture of Teresita and her father. The 19-year-old healer’s death sentence is commuted to exile, and she makes a spectacular exit from the country.
Only at the end does Urrea fully evoke Teresita’s incandescent spiritual power—in a second novel (after In Search of Snow, 1994) that, otherwise, is a mildly engaging look at life on a prerevolutionary Mexican ranch, with amusingly irreverent touches.