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Book Review: From This Wicked Patch of Dust

Writer Sergio Troncoso graduated from Harvard, studied philosophy at Yale, and was a Fulbright Scholar in Mexico.  But he started in a Texas barrio.  In his latest novel, he tells the story of upward mobility in a family much like his own. 

My father once said, “College may be the worst thing that ever happens to you. ”  Not a college man himself, he wanted educated kids, even though he feared it might erode the family—a common worry among parents who want better for their children than they had themselves.  El Paso writer Sergio Troncoso knows this story. In his novel From This Wicked Patch of Dust he tells how education and wanderlust fragment a tightly knit immigrant family.

1966.  Mexican migrants Pilar and Cuauhtémoc Martínez move their young family to Ysleta Pueblo, the oldest village in Texas.  Here, Senor Martínez puts his talents as a builder to good use.  He and Pilar manage to lift the family from poverty.  When the children graduate high school, they have choices.

Troncoso divides his novel by dates, giving snapshots of important moments in his characters’ lives. For Julia, the adventurous daughter, 1966 is a bad year.  The Beatles are on the radio, and she, a teenager in a shack without electricity.  After high school, she gets out.  She dabbles in college, travels abroad, taps her parents’ bank account again and again, and finally finds herself in the Muslim faith raising a family in Iran.  Meanwhile, her studious brother, Ismael, lands a scholarship to Harvard, marries a Jewish girl, and moves to New York.  Days after 9/11, he grieves Al-Qaeda’s victims.  He can smell them roasting in the rubble.

Julia and Ismael identify deeply with their adopted Muslim and Israeli cultures.  They can’t speak to each other without arguing.  And their mother, Pilar, can’t stop fretting about her headstrong children.  In the end, Pilar laments ever coming to America:  “We didn’t belong in Mexico and we don’t belong here,” she says.  “We’ve been abandoned in this evil desert. ”

But it’s not all dread and regret.  The family argues, yes, and they worry, but they stay in touch—in two languages.  Spanish peppers the English in these pages. Spanglish.  A wonderful hybrid that expresses mutating cultures.

From This Wicked Patch of Dustis an ambitious book, full of insight into complex American identity. I wouldn’t call it a page-turner.  Because Troncoso tells the story in snapshots, the characters don’t really drive the plot.  They serve the ideas behind the story.  Still, there’s wisdom in these pages and compassion for fragmented families in a mobile, complicated world. 

Ann Cummins is Professor of Creative Writing at Northern Arizona University. She has published stories in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, Antioch Review, and elsewhere; her fiction has been anthologized in a variety of series including The Best American Short Stories, The Prentice Hall Anthology of Women’s Literature, and The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories. A 2002 recipient of a Lannan Foundation Literary Fellowship, she is the author of the short story collection Red Ant House, (Houghton Mifflin, spring, 2003) and the novel Yellowcake (Houghton Mifflin, 2007).