OK, I lied when I wrote that I would not have finished Saving the World had I not been in the middle of nowhere with nothing else to do. I always finish books, unless they are incredibly outrageously horrible. I can’t remember the last time I started a book and couldn’t finish it. There was wire damage on my train line yesterday evening, so it took me an hour and half to get home. I sat on a train that was going nowhere, and thought about Saving the World.
This novel has a parallel story line. There is Alma, a Dominican author with writer’s block and depression living in Vermont with her husband who works for an international aide agency trying to safe the world from poverty. And there is Isabel, a character from the early 1800’s, who works in a boy’s orphanage in Spain. A doctor from Spain wants to go on an expedition around the world spreading the smallpox vaccine. Only problem is he needs human carriers for the vaccine. He asks Isabel if she and 22 boys from her orphanage, who will act as live vaccine carriers, will come on his expedition to save the world from smallpox.
Compared to Isabel, Alma’s problems seemed trivial and unimportant, making her character seem uninteresting and dull. Alma is a modern woman, she is a successful author and has everything in terms of material comforts, and yet she suffers from depression. Her husband is leaving for 3 months to build a green center in her home country of the Dominican Republic. She chooses to stay at home to work through her writer’s block. Isabel faces an ocean-going journey around the globe and is responsible for the health and well-being of 22 orphan boys serving as live vaccine carriers trying to safe the world from smallpox. What an important mission when compared to Alma. What is Alma trying to do to save the world? Nothing, she is at home while her husband saves the world.
Maybe this is what Alvarez wants her readers to realize; that one person cannot save the world by themselves. Even though she stays home, Alma provides support for her husband during his dangerous mission. And even though Isabel is responsible for the health and safety of the boys and the vaccine they are carrying, she is one part of a large mission from Spain set out to spread the vaccine. With her are a team of doctors and nurses, and as they travel around South America, they are only successful when they are working together. How can one person save the entire world by themselves? They cannot. Isabel’s team couldn’t administer the vaccine when their director offended the host country’s leaders. Alma’s husband can’t save the Dominican Republic village from poverty because he doesn’t fully understand the roots of this poverty. Progress is only possible with collaboration.
There is phrase that Alvarez uses in the beginning of the novel, I don’t have the book in front of me so I cannot write the exact quote but it goes something like this: Our lives don’t belong to us, but to those who love us. Some people like to think of themselves as independent, free spirits, not belonging to anyone, not tied down to the system, just going out and selflessly trying to save the world. Alvarez reminds us that this is an illusion. We are all living on the same planet together, so it’s up to all of us, not just the chosen few, to save it.
PS – Go Obama!