Just finished the book this morning on the train. Urrea is quickly becoming my favorite authors, and this book did not disappoint. The Hummingbird’s Daughter is like a grown up’s version of Bless Me Ultima. Ultima is a coming of age story of a young Mexican-American boy who learns life lessons from Ultima, the local curandera who moves into his house in her old age. In Hummingbird, the old curandera is named Huila, and she is definitely no Ultima. Huila is a crass old lady. She drinks and curses like a sailor, she walks around the ranch with a shot gun across her chest and keeps her herbs in a dead man’s ball sack. She’s great. But anyway, the hummingbird’s daughter is actually Teresita Urrea, born out of wedlock to an Indian ranch worker and the ranch patron, Tomas Urrea. Under the teaching of Huila and a desert medicine man named Manuelito, Teresita becomes a skilled healer and political and spiritual leader for local Indian tribes. Indians from all over make pilgrimages to see her and be healed by her. She tells the pilgrims that since their land is given to them by God, only God can take away that land, and not the Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz. She is considered a saint by the Indians, and a dangerous political enemy by the government.
I said this about The Devil’s Highway and I’ll say it again here. The reason why I enjoy Urrea’s writing is all the details. He does not hold back in describing the sad state of poor Indians pilgrims seeking out Teresita’s help (lice, fleas, open wounds covered in worms and maggots, open sores leaking out pus, diarrhea from bad food and water, etc.) Urrea takes about a paragraph to describe what the characters are eating for breakfast and dinner and it makes me crave Mexican food so badly. The details that he adds never weights the story down, they’re part of this story. This is not like a Steinbeck novel where an entire chapter is about the geography of the Salinas Valley. (Don’t get me wrong, East of Eden is one of my favorite books, but you know what I mean)
This book was a joy to read because of dialogue. It is witty, sharp, and just fun to read. Urrea uses profanity quite a bit in this book, but is never overused. All of his characters, even the minor ones, are well developed and memorable. I really liked Tomas’ relationship with his friends, the educated engineer Lauro and the top ranch hand Segundo. I think I had a smile on my face the entire time I read this novel. It is that good.
The coolest thing about this book is that Teresita Urrea was a real person and her story is documented in Mexican and U.S. newspapers. She is a distant relative of the author and he spent 20 years researching this novel. He offers more Teresita details on his website.
I don’t know what to read next, if anyone has recommendations, let me know.