In the latest installment of KNAU's Southwest Book Review, we go back 20 years to the first novel by Arizona-based writer Alfredo Vea, Jr. Set in the desert town of Buckeye in the late 1950's, La Maravilla tells the story of Beto, a young boy torn between his love and fear of living in different worlds - both real and mystical. According to our book reviewer Mary Sojourner, Vea uses the Sonoran desert as a powerful measure of time.
Young Beto lives in Buckeye, Arizona five decades ago - or five centuries, so different is his world from the Buckeye of today. His world is filled with delight and terror, wise abuelas and abuelos, a shining field of marigolds, a medicine bottle filled with a mysterious liquid and dead scorpions. He moves on streets and in rooms alive with ghosts, saints and spirits. He knows the perfume of sage and rosemary, frijoles and cinnamon chocolate. He hears true stories about what has been taken from his people and what survives.
Alfredo Vea Jr.'s novel is based on his own life. Like Beto, he grew up in Buckeye with his grandparents, who wrapped him in love and the swaddlings of their Yaqui, Mexican and Filipino traditions. He lived at the shimmering intersection of Catholic mysticism and earth-rooted Yaqui magic. His love for those beginnings and his honor for all that we think we can control but cannot, are palpable. His love - and sometimes terrified respect for the people of his youth - are the threads that weave La Maravilla together.
Vea writes in his prologue: "Oh yes, one last word. There are people with me on this page." And there is desert. The sand and emptiness surrounding Buckeye are as much alive as Beto, his family and friends; a trio of pigtailed girls playing jump rope; spirits both wicked and tender; the good Reverend Drake and his kitten Rosa (named for Rosa Parks); and the red-eyed denizens of the Blue Moon Cafe. "If you gaze out into the desert even now, in the present day," Vea writes, "the hawk still harries its prey and the falcon turns with rippling wings on planes of rising air." Those immutable presences are evidence for Vea that the desert can bring time to a stop.
I don't know if there are still fields of marigolds in Buckeye, but for me there are - thanks to Alfredo Vea Jr.'s almost eerie gift of stopping time. From the first sentence of La Maravilla: "The woman in black looked up into the high, endless sky", I entered another place and another time. I ran the streets of Buckeye with Beto and his friends; I hid under the porch of a little house in terror; I saw the old white woman, Wysteria Maybelle, walk among her six flea-ridden mongrel dogs in her lumberjack shoes. I listened as an old Yaqui man reclaimed for his grandson their history, their losses and their perseverance. I can't imagine maravillas more wondrous than those gifts of time travel.