Author: Carolyn Forché
Links: Indiebound |Goodreads
Summary: A beautiful, disjointed memoir that did a great job capturing the emotional impact of the history it covered.
“Carolyn Forché is twenty-seven when the mysterious stranger appears on her doorstep. The relative of a friend, [Leonel] is a charming polymath with a mind as seemingly disordered as it is brilliant. She’s heard rumors from her friend about who he might be: a lone wolf, a communist, a CIA operative, a sharpshooter, a revolutionary, a small coffee farmer, but according to her, no one seemed to know for certain. He has driven from El Salvador to invite Forché to visit and learn about his country. Captivated for reasons she doesn’t fully understand, she accepts and becomes enmeshed in something beyond her comprehension.” (source)
This book really on came together for me at the end. Initially, I found myself quite skeptical. When Leonel first shows up on Carolyn’s doorstep, it’s not clear why she chooses to listen to him. It’s not at all clear what’s happening or what the point is. Her choice to share details (Leonel reading Formula One magazines) versus little summaries (parts of Leonel’s history lessons) doesn’t seem to correlate well with the importance of things. She provides no additional context for what Leonel tells her. She sometimes follows a statement with a sort of qualification, something like “or so Leonel said”. I wondered, why hadn’t she fact checked this? Why wasn’t she providing us with a framework to understand what was happening?
By the time she began describing her time in El Salvador with Leonel, it had at least become clear that she was intentionally bringing the reader into her own sense of disorientation. Carolyn didn’t know much about the situation in El Salvador when she arrived. Leonel answered very few of her questions. Instead, he primarily taught by showing her a broad cross-section of life in El Salvador. Carolyn does the same for the reader. Even recognizing what was happening, I wasn’t entirely on board. I like knowing what’s going on. I like facts and context. Carolyn provided only her own disjointed experiences.
Towards the end of the book, Carolyn has seen enough that she, and therefore the reader, can begin to piece together what’s happening in El Salvador. As Carolyn grew more knowledgeable, the pace of the story picked up. Carolyn started to have more agency, taking risks by choice and not simply following Leonel’s instructions. As the reader, I started to feel that I’d really learned something about El Salvador in the 1970s-90s. The way I learned it – through Carolyn’s immersive experiences, with nothing spelled out for me – gave it a lot of emotional impact. I think it will stick with me more than if I’d read a more traditional history.
However… I think I would still understand the situation better if I read a traditional history as well. I’d like to know more about who all the political players were, the history of El Salvador prior to the author’s arrival, etc. For that reason, I’m still on team The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee for the National Book Award win. It’s mix of personal stories and historical context achieved the sort of balance I prefer, even if the writing was not quite as lovely or affecting.