BOSTON — BITTER GROUNDS
By Sandra Bentez
445 pp., $22.95
As I was waiting for the train one morning recently, a middle-aged woman with long black braids strolled by, munching a rolled-up tortilla. Arranging her skirt around her high heels, she settled on the bench beside me, her face tilted to receive the sunlight. Then I noticed that what I had taken for a tunic was a huipil, the pre-Columbian traditional dress of the Maya.
They're here: people who drink Coke and converse with ancestral spirits; who chase away evil with aerosol sprays; who send money home to palmetto-roofed huts in mountain villages.
Instead of hashing over contradictory statistics on the costs and benefits of immigration from Central America, it would help to learn more about the immigrants themselves. "Bitter Grounds," by Sandra Bentez, will be part of that process.
The novel begins in El Salvador in 1932, with the discovery of a headless soldier. The body is found by two women, Mercedes and Jacinta, her teenaged daughter, near a cave dating from Mayan times. For these women, and their Mayan ancestors, volcanoes and trees were as sentient as humans, and shamans mediated between the spirit and material worlds.
The corpse turns out to be the victim of an uprising that resulted in the massacre of thousands of Indians. The two women make their way to San Salvador, giving up their tribal ways. They are hired as servants in the home of a coffee-plantation owner.
Unfortunately, the most interesting part of the book, the women's transition from Mayan animism to European materialist consciousness, passes quickly. Mercedes and Jacinta succumb to a hacienda filled with modern conveniences.
There are occasional touches of the supernatural, but the Mayan world vanishes as completely from their thoughts as from their surroundings. The voices of a radio soap, "Las Dos" ("Two Women") replace the advice of the tribal shaman.
Is it really so easy to shed the old ways? Many contemporary authors writing in the Latin American genre Magical Realist, would disagree. But Bentez appears to be writing for a more literal-minded North American audience.
The three generation plot evolves into a Latin "Upstairs/Downstairs," cutting between the lives of Mercedes, Jacinta, and Jacinta's out-of-wedlock daughter, Maria Mercedes, and their female employers. In the background, 50 years of Salvadoran politics grinds on, as the price of coffee rises and falls, and a tiny minority of whites ensures that the Indian pickers remain malnourished and subservient.
As a whole, the parallel stories are suspenseful, well-plotted, and filled with sympathetic characters, although they do include many staples of today's telenovela versions of "Las Dos": a kidnapped (and conveniently birthmarked) baby, mistaken identities, unlikely coincidences, family feuds, and deathbed reconciliations.
But the principal weakness of the master-servant plot arises from the author's description of Salvadoran society. In spite of her strong identification with the oppressed, Bentez portrays the planters themselves as sympathetic characters.
Granted, elite women, sheltered in their mansions and convent schools, might have remained uncorrupted. But men who dispatch guardias to shoot down starving strikers or murder social workers? Men who carry weapons at all times and don't hesitate to use them? It's hard to imagine such landowners (as this book does) who would leave evil at the threshold, turning into gentle and faithful husbands at home.
Still, "Bitter Grounds" remains a valuable book. It's entertaining, but also challenging. The next time a reader sees someone like the Mayan commuter, she or he may view her as someone with a story to tell.
* Kathleen Kilgore is author of the novels "The Ghost-Maker" (Houghton Mifflin) and "The Wolf Man of Beacon Hill" (Little, Brown & Co.).