I shamefully admit that covers play a huge part in the books I choose to read, more often even than author blurbs or book descriptions. Case in point: Summer of the Mariposas by Guadalupe Garcia McCall. Up until a few days ago, I had zero interest in the book because the cover, to me, screams “Contemporary YA story of summer!beaches!butterflies!” Even though I do enjoy the occasional Contemporary YA novel, it just didn’t appeal to me at a first glance.    

This changed when Summer of the Mariposas was recently announced as a 2013 Andre Norton Award Nominee, meaning that it is actually a Speculative Fiction novel. That was what got me interested enough to read the book description, which then inspired me to actually read the book ASAP.

This is what this story is really about: a re-telling of The Odyssey following five Mexican-American sisters—Odilia and her four hermanitas—whose father has recently disappeared without a trace. After finding a dead man floating in the Rio Grande, the girls cross the border into Mexico to return the body to his family. Their trip is fraught with peril, with numerous encounters—including La Llorona (a legendary ghost who weeps for her lost children) who guides the girls in their subsequent journey to meet their paternal grandmother, and several figures of Aztec mythology. Their mission is to travel to the land of their ancestors so they can find themselves again, as sisters and as a family.

Sounds awesome, right?

The fantasy elements are, indeed, fantastic. While I wouldn’t go as far as to say that this is an Odyssey re-telling (I don’t think the connections are strong enough to warrant that description), the Mexican and Aztec folklore and mythology are perfectly incorporated into the story. There is a strong element of subversion and reimagining as well, especially with regards to La Llorona’s story and the figure of Malintzin. The latter—a slave-turned-interpreter for conquistador Cortés and the natives of Mexico, and possibly the mother of the first Mestizo in Mexico—is a fantastic historical figure that has been much maligned through the centuries. Malintzin appears as a real character in the story, but there’s also an obvious parallel between her and Cortés’ story and that of the five girls’ parents—their light-skinned Spaniard father abandons their dark-skinned Aztecan mother (just as Cortés abandoned Malintzin). I loved how noticeably the story observes the religious syncretism prevalent in Mexico (and in Latin America as a whole), especially in the connection between two seemingly disparate mother figures: the Catholic Virgen de Guadalupe and Tonantizin, a goddess of Aztec Mythology.  

Motherhood—literal and metaphorical—and sisterhood are perhaps the biggest central themes to the story. The relationship between the five girls is painfully, gloriously detailed with all the bickering, jealously, loyalty and love that one can expect of so many sisters.       

These praises said, I was underwhelmed by the writing and a few thematic threads of the story. With regards to the former, there is a tendency toward oversimplification and simplistic writing, the dialogue often cringe-worthy and forced. Take, for instance, this scene between Odilia and a witch:   

“That’s right! We know what you’re doing,” I said, my voice cracking momentarily. “But we’re too smart to be lulled to sleep by your lies anymore. I saw you baking last night. I saw what you put into those pies. But we’re wide awake now and we’re not going to eat anything you try to feed us. That’s why we gave those tortas to the pigs. You don’t believe me? Go see for yourself. Your pigs are probably snout down in the mud by now.”

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Not to mention the repetition of one basic progression: Odilia and her sisters make a silly, stupid decision. They learn their lesson. They forget said lesson almost immediately to continue making silly, stupid decisions. They learn their lesson. And so on and so forth—frustrating doesn’t begin to cover it. Perhaps there is a point to be made that those decisions stem from how young they are, but that doesn’t exactly jibe with the way they are portrayed as smart in the novel at large.          

There is also the issue of the premise itself: The sisters’ mission is orchestrated by the greatest goddess of their faith, and must be undertaken because…they need to learn how to be a family. It is completely unbelievable to me that the most important goddess in this pantheon would even concern herself with this one particular family just because. Then again, there is definitely an element of faith in this idea—everybody is special, therefore everybody is taken care of by the deities in which they believe.

Finally, there is also the question of why the girls were “chosen” (because of the goodness in their hearts) and how they should carry on their mission (by being noble and kind-hearted, and by not displaying anger and arrogance). This dichotomization of “good traits” (kindness) versus “bad traits” (anger) culminates when the girls face their father’s new wife, who is described as a cold, manipulative, loud, arrogant woman. That is, a woman who is diametrically opposed to their “sweet, loving mama.” This idea of kindness and nobility is often part of fairytales and folklore, but it is also a discourse that is used too often when addressing women’s stories, and in connection to female characters. The problem is that girls are often expected to be nice and kind. Even when they are angry, even when fighting oppression, they always must be nice and kind.

Summer of the Mariposas does have a strong start and a range of incredible elements peppered throughout. On the whole, though, as you can probably tell, I have complicated feelings about the book. It is a good book and I recommend reading it, but with some sizeable reservations.

In BookSmugglerish: a reserved 6 out of 10.

Thea James and Ana Grilo are The Book Smugglers, a website for speculative fiction and YA. You can find also find them at Twitter.