Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Farthest Home is where you make it

The Farthest Home is in an Empire of Fire: A Tejano Elegy –John Phillip Santos

Nonfiction / Memoir
280 pages
5 Stars

When I read his first book, Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation, I never wanted the book to end. I parsed out the last few pages one or two pages at a time, and then one or two paragraphs until, alas, I reached the fateful words: The End.

This book was only slightly different, I did not parse out the last pages, because I know there is another book by him waiting to be read.

Where Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation was a pretty straight forward memoir of his patrilineal line, The Farthest Home is in an Empire of Fire: A Tejano Elegy is anything but a straightforward memoir of his matrilineal side of the family.

He took chances with this book, and they not only worked, they worked well. He used poetic language—in fact, the whole book may well be one very long prose poem—to weave a tapestry of brilliant colors and subdued shadows of a surreal magical realism as he told the story of his search for his matrilineal roots.

Engrossed right from the beginning, I had a hard time putting this book down. Normally, when people use "foreign" words in a story, it's a turn-off for me. I get the feeling they are trying to show me how intelligent they think they are. This book starts off in Spanish. I do not speak Spanish. But I read, and I recognized the words, and he explains them when they might not be so obvious to a gringa such as I. (We have so many Latin Americans living in my area, that most signs are in Spanish and English—it is amazing what one can learn by reading and observing!)

This is the story of Santos searching for his deep roots, all the way back to Spain, and how he finds them. I loved the people he met along the way, and the story of meeting a cousin and trading his Tony Lama boots for his cousin's ragged farm work boots. They wore the same size.

His mother's family arrived in southern Texas in the 1620s, Santos goes back to Spain and finds the town they were from. He rethinks the way we think about our identity. Wo are we, really? How many generations or years must we be Spanish or Mexican or American or Scottish to call ourselves by one name or another?

This book is history, from an up close and personal perspective. It is memoir. It is told in past, present, and future. It is totally engaging. A read no one should miss.

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