By Elena Castedo.
328 pages
New York: A Time Warner Book, 1990.
ISBN # 0-446-39345-2

Comments of Bob Corbett
February 2002

Ten-year old Solita was born in Franco’s Spain, from which her family fled for a short while to France and finally, fleeing the Nazis in WWII, ended up in Chile. Her father, staunch left-wing Republican and labor lawyer, can’t practice law in Chile and his tendency to get involved in labor politics threatens his refugee status.

The story of their lives is told by the young Solita and both the device of having the novel told by the young girl and the environment in which it occurs, allows author Elena Castedo to reveal a fascinating world in depth without the story ever really seeming like a sociological treatise.

Solita’s family is desperately poor and her father Julian is flirting with disaster by getting involved with the fledging Chilean labor movement. Her mother, Pilar, having her own difficulties with her marriage with Julian, takes Solita and her four year old son, Niceto and flees to Paradise. This is the rural estate of a wealthy and connected Chilean family. Pilar’s beauty is an attraction to the mistress of the estate, Mercedes, whose sexuality is going through a change, and Pilar also offers a level of culture to which Mercedes aspires. Pilar is willing to suffer a great deal in the role of suppliant in order to provide herself and her children a chance to escape the difficult role of suspect refugees, and to create a more stable and upwardly mobile life in Chile.

In having Solita tell the story we are able to see this world from the eyes of an innocent child who often doesn’t understand what’s going on, and thus presents it to us in ways that give us a much deeper insight into the class separations between the upper bourgeoisie of the estate and the peasants and servants who care for them. In the main this is a brilliant device of story telling. The only difficulties are that upon occasions Castedo allows the ten year old Solita to speak in language and understanding far beyond the reasonable capability of such a child. Once she says:

“The peones straightened up when they saw us and took their hats off for a second. I thought their expressions were mocking.”

Later on I was totally startled when Solita describes someone’s mood as “soporific.”

In the main, however, the story is brilliantly told. Pilar aggravated me a great deal. She knew exactly what she was doing, but prostrated herself before these rich people in the life a slave in order to advance herself and her children. Solita never understood, and knowing her mother only as a strong and capable person in their previous world, constantly misunderstood what was going on. Solita expected to the very end that eventually they would go back to her father and the slum in which they had been living. She never understood that this whole trip, which she thought of as a summer lark, was actually a marital breakup and that Pilar was fishing for a new husband in the upper class. This conflict between the behavior of the mother and the understanding of the daughter allows us to get inside the class separations in a brilliant manner. At one point when Solita is particularly frustrated as her mother’s subservience she nearly revolts. Pilar tells her:

“…the best way to get where you want to be is to please those who own the road.”

Solita, perhaps wise beyond her years, has her own reply:

“My mother didn’t know you could cut cross-country to get somewhere; I would rather cut through puma-, black-lobo- and litre infested brush; through lakes with leeches; through volcanic mountains. We could walk to the public road and hitch a ride back to Galmeda if she wanted; we had done for more difficult things before. Why, why did she want to get to a place where she needed to use these people’s roads? I detoured an ant who insisted on coming on a path toward my sandal. Stupid ant; I could squash it in a flash. She should have chosen another road.”

Another way that Pilar used for controlling Pilar and Niceto was to insist that when in Rome do as the Romans did. Whenever Solita was suffering from the horrid treatment she received from the three daughters of hostess Mercedes, she repeated her mother’s warning that when in Rome….. Finally, near the end a group of gypsies come to the estate on their yearly visit and Solita is deeply taken with their free spirit, one that matches her own increasing rebellion against what she sees as her mother’s excessive passivity. She explodes:

“When you wanted to go somewhere, you had to take yourself there, but you could choose your own road only if you were grown up. …. I wasn’t going to play with anybody who didn’t want me on their team. I wasn’t going to follow anybody else around, no matter how colossally rich or elevated or anything. I wasn’t ever going to accept anybody’s spit. And when I grew up, I was never going to go to Paradise, nor do what the Romans did. I was going to do what the Gypsy said: cross the oceans and find love.”

But this is not a clear moral tale. While Pilar is prostrating herself before the rich, fawning all over them and working her way up the ladder while debasing herself to the nth degree, and while Julian is, meanwhile clawing himself back into a position of importance as a labor lawyer and political figure in Chile, the spirit of Julian and Solita does not necessarily win out. Pilar achieves exactly what she sets out to win and we are left with both the Roman path and the Gypsy path succeeding for those who follow them with passion and determination.

I loved the story and the writing. The narration of ten year-old Solita captivated me and while I found a few occasions when her language and understand went far beyond anything I could remember or imagine from my days of raising my own seven children, in the main I think Elena Castedo presented the us with some profound and believable insights from this ten year old. I walk away from this marvelous story remembering the response of Solita when her mother explains to her the brutal ax murder which happens to one of the upper class women at the hands of a mad peasant. Pilar describes the man as a primitive and that the woman had a taste for the primitive and this tragedy occurred. Solita is deeply moved and as she leaves her mother’s presence she reflects on the event:

“There was a flicker of a mountain shack and a man’s ax coming down and blood pouring out of someplace, but it was too horrible to consider, too horrible to make that head belong to Tia Merce, who was left whole, chuckling and sagging her chin and dropping sugar cubes in her tea with her long nails. One thing I was never going to do when I grew up was to go see primitive men.”

Bob Corbett

Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett