Book review: Nostalgia and the New Mexican desert from “Bless Me, Ultima”

”Bless Me, Ultima” by Rudolfo Anaya takes A Reading Life blogger Katie back to her time as a teen in the Southwest.

By Katie, Everett Public Library staff

Nostalgia is a funny thing. I tend to get swept up in that warm, slow, nap-in-the-afternoon feeling far more than I should, but I can’t help it. Remembering the better days seems to be an involuntary reaction that will inevitably lead to me being a little old lady regaling my grand-nieces and nephews with long stories having no point and no plot—kind of like this sentence.

I recently went back to Phoenix after a year of living in Washington to watch my youngest brother graduate from the high school I attended. I would be seeing family and good friends after more than a year of being away, and there was also the possibility of seeing some of my old high school classmates. (Spoiler Alert: I actually did not see any of my old classmates so they were unable to see how adult and hot I’d become.)

When I was in high school I participated in Academic Decathlon which is basically the Nerd Championships consisting of seven tests (arts, science, music, math…), an interview, a memorized and impromptu speech, and an essay surrounding a particular topic each year. In my sophomore year of high school the topic was Mexico, and the book we had to collectively read was Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya. This is why I have chosen this novel as my “Book I Have Not Read since High School.”

I was excited about this book because AcaDeca (as we called it) holds a lot of good memories for me. Rereading books is an opportunity to recall specific memories as I find that books hold impressions and thoughts and feelings so I don’t have to. Bless Me, Ultima is also a coming-of-age story which perfectly sets the mood.

Antonio Marez is constantly caught in the middle of his parents’ plans. His mother wishes him to become a priest to bring honor to her farming family. His father wishes for Tony to become a vacquero (cowboy) like he himself was long ago, and to live in the Llano (the New Mexican desert). Tony does not know what he wants, but he does know that he loves Ultima. She is a curandera (a person who is a mix between a priest and a witch) who has come to live with Tony’s family and to use her magic to heal the town folk. The intense mix of religious superstition and magic creates an interesting dynamic which fuels much of the story’s conflict.

The entire book teems with magical realism as Tony struggles with his parents’ wishes, with growing up, religion, and navigating the complicated social network that is his circle of friends. Anaya’s cast of colorful characters and detail-oriented descriptions draw you deeply into the story, causing you to feel as Tony feels. He even makes the desert sound like a desirable place to live which (for me) is quite the task.

High school was a difficult time for a lot of people. I got through relatively unscathed (college is another story), and books like Bless Me, Ultima made everything a whole lot easier. While it was true that books were my constant companions, the character study I was able to conduct enriched my life beyond words. I would recommend Bless Me, Ultima to those who want to remember what it was like being a kid — the drama that was real and the drama that was blown out of proportion. As I struggle to be an actual real-life adult, it’s nice to remember that it was hard to be a kid too sometimes, but it was worth it.

Be sure to visit A Reading Life for more reviews and news of all things happening at the Everett Public Library.

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