I hate picking up an edition of a book made to capitalize on the release of a movie version. It shouldn’t matter, but I end up looking at the recognizable actors and such on the cover and get an impression of them instead of the book itself. I had that problem when I looked at Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr. My copy had Glenn Close and Keith Carradine on the cover and mentioned how it was now “a riveting CBS drama on the Hallmark Hall of Fame.” I tried not to think about that and let it color my impressions instead of taking the book as it was, but I have no way of knowing how successful I was. I just wish I’d gotten a non-movie related copy of the book instead.
(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 3rd for Sandra Cisneros and 5th for Kathryn Harrison)
Stones for Ibarra concerns Americans Sara and Richard Everton who have done borrowed everything they could to come to a small Mexican village and restart a copper mine long ago abandoned by Richard’s grandfather. It’s a strange, inexplicable move. Of course, there is some pleasant clash between the couple and the villagers. Both seem to respect each other, but they will never ultimately understand each other:
The Acostas reported back to the village. “The señora cooks food from cans over a gasoline fire. It must be very expensive. While she stirs the pot, the señor is in the kitchen. A man in the kitchen and not to eat. He is pouring from a whiskey bottle into glasses. He adds a thimble of Tehuacán water and gives one glass to the señora. They lift their glasses and laugh. We saw it ourselves,” said Remedios. “The señora wearing her shirt inside her ranchero pants instead of loose outside, decently covering that part of her. And drinking alcohol as she cooks, while the señor, whose father was born in that house, sits on the table and lets his long legs swing.”
Though the village is somewhat quiet. It is still a harsh place to live:
It was now that the Palacio brothers entered the Copa de Oro and walked up to the bar. They worked in the concentrating mill of the Malagueña mine and carried with them like an aura the bitter smell of cyanide. José Reyes first approached Tomás, then Julián. He asked for a small loan of money to be repaid tomorrow and was refused. When the Palacio brothers tried to turn away, he held them back and said, “I am not as rich as you are with a week’s salary in your pockets.” When they refused a second time, José pulled from the wide belt under his denim jacket the machete he had used to strip twigs from the firewood and, as if they had attacked him, cut Tomás in the neck and Julián in the stomach. Then José Reyes was outside in the street, running faster than one so besotted should run, with thirty meters between him and those who came after. There were five who followed him, and two were Palacio cousins and one a Palacio son.
Of course, that harshness doesn’t seem to affect the couple much. Instead, is a hidden illness discovered after the couple arrives that puts definite boundaries on their time there. Leukemia. It seems strangely separate, evidencing both a common fate with those of the Ibarra village and a permanent separateness.
The book just kind of seems to go on in this way. Quietly for the most part.
There is a beautiful melancholy in Stones for Ibarra. Cultures clash, respecting but never quite understanding each other. The environment is harsh as the prose is sparse, but that seems almost secondary to the real danger. Fate is still fate, though, regardless of where it comes from.
Stones for Ibarra reminds me of Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop in some ways, though it is quite different in others. Perhaps it was just the lonely southwest of the past, but perhaps it is more than that. Similar language maybe. Faith would definitely be different, since the Everton aren’t believers. Maybe Stones for Ibarra isn’t so similar and I just felt it was. I don’t know.
Regardless, I enjoyed Stones for Ibarra…though I found it’s goodness to be a quiet one. Unassuming. Take that for what you will.