Friday, January 18, 2013

The Good, the Bad, and the Really Weird

You have most likely heard about something called "the good old days."  This is a time somewhere in the past (round about the Second World War) in which life was supposedly simpler, kids were better behaved, and the American dream (or other national variation thereof) seemed more attainable.  This all sounds really nice, and many people bemoan the loss of this time of national innocence, or want to cram our "deviant" society back in time, back into this mold. 

There is just one problem with this notion: the "good old days" are a myth.  Like all myths, this may contain a grain of truth (some things have really changed), but simply does not match reality.  To confirm this, one need only read a story set in this time, written by someone who actually lived through itBless Me,Ultima  is such a story, though it is not exactly a gritty portrait like you get in The Grapes of Wrath.  Rather (in keeping with the idea of "myth") it may be compared with the kind of story we find in The Odyssey: part family drama, part supernatural thriller, part adventure story, all set against the backdrop of "the good old days." 

Antonio Marez's life would seem to embody the best notions of this age: he is raised in a devout, loving family, steeped in religious and cultural traditions that lend stability and a sense of safety to his life.  As his story of growing up in a small New Mexican community progresses however, external pressures such as war and disease, and internal pressures created by family expectations and doubt shake Antonio's safe, secure world to its foundations.  War leads to a rift in his community and family.  The resulting conflicts precipitate a crisis of faith, as alternate mythologies (magical fish and witchcraft) seem to succeed where his Catholic tradition fails.   Actually, every source of authority seems to fail - law enforcement officers ignore murder, teachers are powerless in the face of bullies, family members drift away, and religious traditions seem to remain eerily silent in the face of natural and supernatural evil.  Not that anyone would have much to say; some of the things that occur in the book defy any explanation.

So, if you are looking for a story that draws you in and leaves you with more questions than answers, a book you will be thinking about and talking about and wondering about for a long time, a book that has been banned because it looks at some cherished myths with a questioning eye, this might just be the one.

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