First published on 15 Feb 2012. Updated on 22 Feb 2012.
It’s rumoured that armed soldiers rode alongside a truck full of copies of Love in the time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, prior to its first release. It is hard to imagine such protection for the most recent novel by Louis Alberto Urrea, Queen of America. The two writers are compared for coupling South American history with magical realism, but Urrea's latest book falls well short of the mark.
Queen of America is a laboured account of miracles performed by Urrea's great aunt, Teresita. Legend has it that Teresita gained her powers after venturing briefly into the afterlife. Upon her return, her sweat smelled of roses and she became a holy icon for Mexican pilgrims.
As the sequel to The Hummingbird’s Daughter, Queen of America follows Saint Teresita as she heals the sick through turn-of-the-century America. It details her struggle with fame, a turbulent relationship with her father and her romantic endeavours along the way.
As far-fetched as it may seem, it is not imagination that inspired these stories. Instead, they are accounts that Urrea collected during twenty years of research. In his words, it is "A novel as opposed to a textbook.... my dream that follows the historical time line." However the result is more an exercise in chronology and family mythology than a good novel.
The book contains sporadic passages of beauty, reminding us that Urrea has real poetic talent. However, in his latest work he is overly concerned with history and the first half of Queen of America is weighed down by fact. The character Tomas, Teresita’s father, is extremely two-dimensional and the stoic relationship between him and the Saint is rife with clichés. Tomas is an alcoholic playboy, and Teresita a virginal medium of God – the two are almost nothing more until very late in the tale.
Urrea writes in English but regularly injects Spanish words and phrases into the text that will likely confuse some readers. Rather then adding life, which the writer likely intended, it is frustrating and alienating. The Highlights are the accounts of Teresita falling in love, which showcase the writer's vivid imagination and prove entrancing and impossible to put down. The vibrant prose he uses to describe cities, particularly a New York just beginning to emerge from industrialism, also make for exciting reading.
Ultimately, Queen of America would be a good book if it were 200 pages long. The only problem is that it is 500 pages.