Honduran refugee Penelope shares the story of her life and her husband, Ulysses, a Native American who becomes a warrior in Vietnam, in this debut work of contemporary fiction.
In a Native American lodge in Eastern Oregon, Penelope, an “elder” in the Sundown family, wishes to relate the “ancient story” of the Odyssey but is urged to tell the tale of “our people and your life” instead. And so begins her first-person recounting of her birth in Honduras in 1954, her experience as a child sex slave for the M-13 gang, and her eventual escape to the Pacific Northwest. In this new world, she meets Ulysses Looking Glass “Ulee” Sundown, a pastor’s son and talented athlete, albeit with a growing record of violence. Both are 15 when Ulee kills a visiting M-13 thug and then signs up to serve in Vietnam to avoid second-degree murder charges. He becomes a skilled killer soldier yet also helps out at a local orphanage. Penelope proposes to Ulysses on leave, but he soon annuls the marriage, believing he’ll die in combat in Vietnam. Penelope gives birth to their son, Telemachus, and studies to become a doctor. The lovers finally reunite and remarry in the 1970s, after Ulee has fought in Israel and escaped a POW camp, among other exploits. They move for a time to Los Angeles for Penelope’s medical career, with Ulee by turns a professional football player, Olympics track medal winner, and impassioned minister. Penelope eventually returns to Honduras to build medical facilities, where she faces figures from her past. White (Astoundingly Joyful, Amazingly Simple, 2012, etc.), the senior pastor of Washington Cathedral in Redmond, weaves a rich tapestry of minority and marginalized experiences into his sophomore fiction effort. His updating of Homer is by turns amusing (a modern-day Telemachus) and astute (“Vietnam was an addiction, just as the Trojan War was for his namesake”). Yet the narrative struggles under the weight of its competing protagonists and multiple plot strands, with Penelope’s horrible childhood as well as adult showdown in the Honduras, for example, rather hurriedly conveyed as well as eclipsed by Ulee’s many intense and dramatic adventures.
An intriguing, if overloaded, version of the Odyssey.