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Novel Revisits Puerto Rico's History

Esmeralda Santiago (When I was Puerto Rican) delivers an enthralling tale in Conquistadora

Her rich and elegantly told tale is packed with inspired characters — like Severo, the iron-fisted mayordomo, one step ahead of everyone else but smitten and conquered by Ana's mettle — and deftly-chosen details, like this description of Ana's first glimpse of Hacienda Los Gemelos:

"One minute they were in the forest and the next they emerged into an open valley in many shades of green, from pale, almost yellow to olive. Grayish lavender tassels rippled over some fields." "'That's the guajana,' Severo said, 'the cane flower that indicates when the stalks are ready for harvest.'

"In the far distance, soft-edged mountains stretched west to east. What land wasn't under cultivation was forested. Scattered over the valley, smokestacks pointed to the sky from the surrounding green."

Through the story of the flawed but heroic Ana, a character that the New York Daily News calls a Spanish Scarlett O'Hara, Santiago chronicles the history of Puerto Rico's conquest years when slave revolts, hurricanes and a cholera epidemic challenged all romantic illusions of turning a ramshackle farm into a wealthy sugarcane plantation. Santiago deals with issues of race, social status and sexuality without delivering easy judgments, and although the details of sugar production can be tedious, readers are rewarded with a greater understanding of the complexities of the times.

Ana perseveres through the tragedies, taking charge and negotiating even the custody of her only son to stay in the land she loves. She loses plenty, and she loves even more. At the end, only the land doesn't disappoint, and one can feel Esmeralda Santiago's own attachment to her native soil when she writes of Ana: "Long before she reached it, she knew she'd love this land, would love it as long as she lived."

You may also like: Review of The Harvest.

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