author: Guadalupe García McCall
Lee & Low, 2012
Following the success of her verse novel, Under the Mesquite, Guadalupe García McCall’s excellent second novel explores the Mestizo heritage of her characters through a story filled with mystery and magic realism. Fifteen-year-old Odilia Garza, the eldest of five girls living in a Texas town across the river from Mexico, has always thought of herself as descended from the Spanish conquistadores. Although her mother is darker, her father, who abandoned the family several years earlier, has the complexion of a European.
After Odilia and her sisters discover the dead body of a man floating in their favorite swimming hole, the ghost of La Llorona—the mythical woman who drowned her children and is doomed to wander the earth forever—visits her. Here though, La Llorona is mourning not only her own children but also the Aztec people who have lost their connection to their noble past. As La Llorona tells Odilia,
It is an eternal atonement, to watch over the children of the sun, the children of my people, the Azteca bloodline…Yes. You are descendent of a great people.
La Llorona gives Odilia a magic pendent—the ear pendant of the Aztec Serpent God Cihuacoatl—and together with her bickering sisters, Odilia drives across the border to return the dead man to his family and to find her estranged paternal grandmother. McCall interweaves traditional legends, magic realism, and the hero’s journey to create a powerful tale of understanding and triumph featuring a resourceful and memorable heroine.
One of the major contributions of this novel is the reconsideration of the legend of La Llorona, who, like La Malinche, has been used for centuries to enforce patriarchy and the subjugation of women. Even Odilia has absorbed the myth that portrays women as weak and treacherous, needing protection from their own impulses:
I had heard so many awful things about Llorona that I couldn’t help it, I pulled away from her and took a few steps back. “But you . . . killed your children.” It was common knowledge, more than a legend.
In Summer of the Mariposas, the male adults are the weak ones—the father who abandons the family and the dead man who needs the girls to return his body and spirit to his wife and children. As La Llorona explains to Odilia,
“You were chosen for the goodness in your heart…. Like Juan Diego, the most humble of the Virgen’s children, you are noble and kindhearted. You displayed great courage when you jumped into the water to save my sons. Your sister was right when she said finding the body of the drowned man was not an accident.”
Also memorable are the other sisters, each of whom has her own personality and strengths, as one of Odilia’s tasks is to get them to work together rather than against each other. Summer of the Mariposas is a gripping tale that is also a welcome commentary on going beyond what’s “common knowledge” to get at the truth, and the importance of discovering and appreciating one’s mixed heritage. Highly recommended.