Saturday, April 20, 2013

Founding Mother

A few months ago, when I talked about The Odyssey, I complained to you about how every book that my son will read in his Freshman English class was written before my parents graduated from high school.  Then, I went to a curriculum council meeting, and was excited to be asked to approve a book that was written in 2006, Ines of my Soul by Isabel Allende.  Dutifully, I added Ines to my TBR list, to make sure that I wouldn't regret my vote.

Wow, I'm glad I'm not a high school student today!  Ines was not an easy book!  The class that will be reading the book in my district is a 9th grade-12th grade class that combines English and History to try to make the classes more relevant to each other.  In that sense, Ines is perfect, but woe be to the student who procrastinates and figures that he'll be able to whip through this one in a few hours late on Sunday night.

Ines of my Soul is the story of Ines de Suarez, and her lover, Pedro de Valdivia, as they founded Chile in the 1500's.  Like the United States, Chile was not a vacant plot of land just waiting for someone to find it.  It had been "found" centuries earlier by the Manpuche, the Inca, and other people who the Europeans referred to as "Indians."

The story of the founding of a country could be quite dry.  I am pretty sure that if the nation of Chile was mentioned in my high school text books at all, it was only in a list of countries in South America.  If we had discussed the country any further, the name, Pedro de Valdivia, might have been something that I was supposed to be able to recognize on a multiple choice test, but nothing more.  After reading Ines, today's students could easily write a five page essay on him.  However, here's the problem that I often face:  historical fiction is not historical fact.  Allende wrote in her author's note, "This novel is a work of intuition, but any similarity to events and persons relating to the conquest of Chile is not coincidental."  Hopefully, when they take the ACT, these kids will be able to sort out the standardized test approved "facts" from the fiction that might actually be closer to the truth than the sanitized textbooks are.

Allende's story is full of action.  The battles are detailed.  The crimes are documented.  It is not a politically correct story.  In the US, we feel a ton of guilt about our history of slavery.  I think that we tend to overlook the fact that we didn't invent slavery, and that it went on just about every time a new country was formed and the conquerors needed free labor.  Slavery is a part of the story of the founding of Chile, as is torture, slaughter, and genocide.  I would say, however, that Allende spends a little too much time talking about the sexuality of the women involved in the founding adventure.   It is interesting and a little relevant that Valdivia had a wife, but also lived openly with two concubines at the end of his life.  It is less important that we know who was a considerate lover and who was well endowed.  This bit may have been what Allende felt she that had to include to make Ines appeal to the over 40 book group crowd.   I'm sure that it also helped to hold the high school students' attention!

I thought it was interesting that Allende credits Ines de Suarez and Pedro de Valdivia (and others) with "founding" Chile in Ines.  Wikipedia uses the verb "conquering" instead.  In talking about the creation of the US, we tend to use the verb "discover" to refer (incorrectly) to Columbus, and "colonize" to refer to the pilgrims and their followers.  When we talk about our "founding fathers" we are speaking of the people who created our Constitution, and not the first people to wage war against the Native Americans. 

So, should your read Ines?  If  you are interested in Chile's history, absolutely!  If your children will read it in high school, and you're the kind of parent who likes to quiz them on their reading to prepare them for finals, then yes, you should read it too.  But if you are looking for a quick page turner, this isn't it.

Next up on CD:  Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella

Still Reading:  The Mystery of Mercy Close by Marian Keyes

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