Sometimes I'm lucky enough to meet a book that is my personal ideal of what a novel is supposed to be. Riveting and utterly engaging, well-written (no little awkwardness-es prose-wise throwing you out of the story), and, most importantly, tilting your framework of the world so that suddenly you see and think about things differently, and you are (you hope) a little bit wiser. These books aren't necessarily the books I love in a cuddly way, but they are the books that I put down thinking how very glad I am to have read them.
The Queen of Water, by Laura Resau and Maria Virginia Farinango (Delacorte, 368 pages, YA) was such a book for me. It is a novel based on the true story of Maria Virginia Farinango's life, that tells how she was taken at the age of seven from her home, in one of the poorest indigenous communities in Ecuador, into de facto enslavement working for a mestizo family (the ruling class, descended from the Spaniards). But the harsh words and harsh beatings that came her way, and the unbearable hurt of thinking her parents did not want her, were not enough to quench her spirit and her determination.
She managed to cobble together an education for herself, while still a child caring for two other children, and doing all the manual labor of the household. But as the years roll on, the reader, along with Virginia, wonders what sort of future she will have--will she be able to escape slavery? and if so, where will she go? and who will she be? She is no longer at home in the world of her family (she has forgotten how to speak her first language), but because of who she is, she cannot be fully part of the mestizo world.
Knowing that Virginia is one of the authors of this story strongly implies from the get-go that the ending will not be heartbreaking! But there are no guarantees about the journey....and the tension of not knowing what was going to happen to this little girl I found myself caring so much about kept me glued to the story. I was uncertain about whether I wanted to read this or not--I do not like depressing books in which children suffer. But Virginia was never beaten in spirit. She is stubborn, she is smart, and she refuses to submit passively to fate. In consequence, although there were heartbreaking moments, and things that made me furious, there was no despair.
Laura Resau, who shaped Maria Virginia Farinango's story into a novel, has done a superb job here--Virginia comes through the pages as one of the most vivid people I've met in ages, and her story is full of metaphor, and detail, and emotional intensity balanced with relative calm. And when I put it down, not only was I really, really happy for Virginia, but I knew a heck of a lot more than I did last week about race and class in late 20th-century Ecuador.
My world is now a little bit bigger, and I feel more determined to make the most of the opportunities afforded to me in my own life. It was a privilege to have shared Virginia's journey with her, and a pleasure to have had the chance to cheer her on. And that's why I'm most awfully glad to have read this book!
The Queen of Water is marketed as older YA, which is natural-- it take Virginia's story into her teenage years, and then ends as she is on the cusp of adulthood. But I hope this story finds adult readers too.
The cover, by the way, shows Maria Virginia herself (although I didn't find anything in the book that said so, which I think it too bad), and is a lovely picture....but I think this one, which wasn't used, is more in keeping with the image of her I have taken from the book!
Lots more pictures, including a painting they didn't end up using, can be found at this page on Laura Resau's blog, where Laura also explains, down at the end of the post, why her name is first when it is Maria Virginia's story.
Here are some other reviews, at A Chair, A Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy, Crazy Quilts, and Not Acting My Age