Appreciating perspectives outside of our own

Megan Binkley, Opinions Editor

Usually, book reviews are designed to focus on new releases. However, on this special occasion (May is Latino Book Month) I would like to pay homage to a Latina writer who changed my life, and who offers an engrossing entry into the world of magical realism and appreciation for non-white cultures.

Isabel Allende (pronounced ay-EN-day) is a Chilean author and feminist activist who has published over 20 books across her lifetime. Her works blends myth, magic, spirit, and hauntingly visceral reality, often shaped by her experiences in the tumultuous political scene of Chile, and a familiarity with American culture. Her work ranges from memoirs to adult fiction to young adult fiction, and continues themes of complex, vivid female leads.

My introduction to her work came through some of her young adult fiction: namely, the City of the Beasts trilogy. Told through the perspective of American-born Alexander Cold, this trilogy chronicles his exploration of cultures foreign to his own, and his growing friendship with Brazilian-born Nadia Santós, daughter of his tour guide through the Amazon.
In the first book, Alex and Nadia are thrown into a struggle for remote tracts of land in the Amazon basin. The land is inhabited by the elusive People of the Mist, and coveted by urban entrepreneurs who plan to commit genocide against the indigenous tribes. Along the way, Alex and Nadia encounter the living gods of the People of the Mist—and a hidden city that just might be the inspiration behind the Spanish myth of El Dorodo.

The next two books take Alex and Nadia to the peaks of the Himalayas, into the unearthly world of hermetic Buddhist monk-warriors, and to the remote African village of Ngoubé, tyrannized by an unholy trio of a king, a commandant, and a sorcerer.
In all three books, Allende pays special attention to the divergent perspectives of her diverse casts. One scene in the final book stands out as her tribute to the way cultures and belief systems shape peoples’ experiences: during the drug, smoke, and sorcery fueled final battle for the freedom of Ngoubé, the band of explorers witness a counterattack by the inhabitants of the forest against the cruel government that has taken over the village.

American-born Alex Cold sees only the indigenous people, along with the elephants and gorillas with whom they co-exist; Brazilian-raised Nadia Santos sees all of this, combined with the spirits of the shamans of the People of the Mist from book one and the astral projections of the Buddhist monk-warriors from the book two, come to help in her time of need. Catholic Missionary Brother Fernando sees a host of angels descended from the sky and smite the sorcerer in his bed of coals, while Angie Ninderera—the Ngoubé native and plane pilot who facilitated the group’s visit—witnesses an entire pantheon of African gods and spirits, lead by a warrior queen on a bull elephant.

Despite their official target age range, these books have become staples in my library.

They explore cultures and worlds that I will likely never see, with a vivacity and exuberance that is riveting. The women in these novels are some of the most fully-fleshed and charismatic characters I have ever encountered in literature, and all richly enhance the stories in which they appear.

For anyone looking for an accessible way to celebrate Latino Books Month (or just looking for great stories in general) I would highly recommend Isabel Allende’s books City of the Beasts, Kingdom of the Golden Dragon, and Forest of the Pygmies.