Monday, August 29, 2011
Sympathizing with the Slave Owner? -- "Conquistadora" Made Me Do It
Hi Meltingpot Readers,
I think it is safe to say that if a novel can make a Black woman sympathetic to an unrepentant slave owner in 1845, then that's some good writing. Suffice it to say, Esmerelda Santiago's epic new novel, Conquistadora does just that.
According to all of the publicity material, Conquistadora is about a young Spanish woman, Ana, who feels stifled by her upper-class upbringing in colonial Spain and longs to live a life of adventure like her conquistador ancestors. So she marries and convinces her husband and his twin brother to move to Puerto Rico and stake their claim in the "new world." This is in 1845 and Puerto Rico is a growing but still untamed island colony belonging to Spain. It was where many Spaniards -- actually any White man from Europe -- from questionable backgrounds could reinvent themselves. It was part of the Spanish Wild West and Ana wanted in, no matter what the cost. Soon enough, Ana and her husband are running a sugar plantation in an isolated part of the island with the African slaves on the plantation the closest thing they have to neighbors.
Conquistadora follows Ana's travails from her marriage and arrival in Puerto Rico, through twenty years of drama. Births, deaths, slave revolts, cholera epidemics. You name it, it happened. But through it all she remains stoic in her determination to make a name for herself in this island nation. To create something from her own two hands instead of relying on her class and parents' wealth. Ana is a survivor and the reader wants her to achieve her goals. Or at least I did. But the problem is, Ana's dreams of making her sugar plantation a success requires the use and abuse of slave labor. There's no other way. Or at least there's no other way Ana and her sexy overseer, Severo Fuentes can think of to bring in the sugar cane and turn a profit. (By the way, Severo is one of those Spaniards from a "questionable background" who is in Puerto Rico seeking fame and fortune.) So, yes, I found myself sympathizing with the slave owner. I wanted Ana to be victorious. I cheered for her success.
So, we come back to Santiago's brilliant storytelling. In my mind, the main character of this tale isn't Ana, but rather, Puerto Rico itself. The island is a living breathing entity that enchants and mystifies. It causes men and women to renounce what they've known before and try to tame her. There are many characters in the book, Spaniards, Africans -- slaves and free --rich and poor, first generation native-born islanders, but it is the island that sits at center stage in this epic tale. After reading this book, one understands not just how Puerto Rico came to be, but why and at what cost. With lush descriptions and an eye for historical detail, Santiago has written a thrilling ode to her birthplace.
For anyone interested in historical fiction, you'll love this book. If you're like me and are fascinated by the intersection of African and Spanish lives and culture, you'll love this book. If you're eager to understand the truly diverse culture of Puerto Rico, you'll love this book. If you'd like an insight into slavery under a different colonial empire than the British (and then American), then you'll love this book. If you're interested in truly understanding the mindset of those who sought to tame new worlds, you'll love this book. As soon as I finished reading it, el esposo grabbed it and read it too. He loved it as much as I did. So, there you have it. Two Kinky Gazpacho thumbs up for Conquistadora.