In Rosa’s (Fractured, 2013, etc.) historical novel, tragedy forces a Puerto Rican teenager to become his family’s sole provider as America’s influence begins to slowly change his native land.
In 1900s Puerto Rico, José Esperanza is an aboriginal Taino. His ancestry dates back to the island’s original native peoples, who were all but destroyed during the Spaniards’ colonization. Now that it’s newly under U.S. rule, Americans are flocking to the island, bringing teachers, missionaries, and profiteers to the rain forest to scrounge out livings. Such scrounging isn’t foreign to José, who spends his days foraging to provide for his family after the death of his father. He finds little aid, as his mother is sick with grief and his eldest brother is a lazy burden. His younger brother and sister are eager to help, but they’re easily distracted by modern commodities and thoughts of life outside Puerto Rico. Along the way, though, José finds new mentors: a zealous American, Montgomery Holland, who, impressed by the boy’s work ethic, employs him on his tobacco farm; Miss Alexandra “Vyris” Paul, a woman feared and respected as a witch, who bears a familial burden much like José’s; an insistent teacher; a stuttering shopkeeper, and others. Rosa paints a vivid picture of turn-of-the-century Puerto Rico, a lively sierra of breathtaking colors and scurrying, slithering, and sometimes-frightening wildlife. José’s drive to help his family as his world changes around him gives the book much of its narrative motion, but its real charm is in its animated portrayal of the island’s jungles and mountains, its turbulent Luquillo River, and its storms’ violence. The novel has a languid storytelling style, and its lengthy conversations and occasional songs give it an anecdotal structure. The only drawback is that its moments of urgency, as when José’s eldest brother is struck with worms, are slowed considerably by expositional digressions. Ultimately, though, the plot is secondary to the rich history and vibrant backdrops.
A slow-paced novel with a beautifully portrayed tropical setting.