Recalling the dreams of a Caribbean past

In the name of Salom By Julia Alvarez Algonquin Books 368 pp., $23.95

Cuba - the name conjures up the pea-green hat of Fidel Castro, and more recently the smiling face of a six-year-old boy allegedly saved by dolphins. With uncanny timing, Julia Alvarez's wonderful new novel, "In the name of Salom," gives a woman's face to the fight for Caribbean freedom.

The novel opens with Cuban-raised Camila Henriquez Urea sitting in her attic room at Vassar College, her famous mother's papers at her feet, contemplating her next move. It is 1960. Castro is announcing plans for an exciting new revolution. To an unmarried Spanish professor facing retirement, this is Camila's final call home.

"She looks in the mirror, and an aging woman blinks back at her," Alvarez writes. "Meanwhile, a girl waits in the wings of her heart for all the important things she was promised that have not yet happened: a great love, a settled home, a free country."

Based loosely on fact, this historical novel skips between several Caribbean islands, telling the story of poet Salom Urea and her only daughter - Cuban-raised Salom Camila Henriquez Urea. Alternating chapters give voice first to the grown daughter living in the US, and then to the mother as a small child in the Dominican Republic. One story rises as the other descends until the two meet at the end of Salom's life, when Camila is only three years old.

Salom Urea was a Dominican Republic poet whose words gave voice to a revolution in the mid-1800s. In the novel, her father, who has a flair for verse and a hunger for political freedom, teaches young Salom that "tears are the ink of the poet." Through his example, Salom learns the power of language. As she grows older, she secretly publishes revolutionary-inspired poems in newspapers under a pseudonym. The passionate rhymes capture the attention of those men and women fiercely devoted to establishing a patria. When Salom, still a young woman, reveals herself as the mysterious muse, she quickly becomes a much-loved and sought-after poetisa by the greatest intellectuals and influential revolutionary politicians on the island.

To Camila, whose memories of her mother are dim, Salom's poems and legacy serve as part muse, part guardian angel. Having lived in the shadow of a presidential father and influential brothers, Camila uses poetry to provide the mother-daughter relationship she craves.

As the novel walks back through Camila's life, secrets are shared: lost loves, a poetic soul never released, and continued disappointment in her family's unsuccessful attempts at establishing a patria.

Meanwhile, Salom's story develops with the establishment of the first Dominican Republic school for girls in her front parlor, a growing family, and her own bitter disappointments.

Large and sweeping themes run through this novel: How do people come together as a nation? What is a patria? Is love stronger than anything else? On the framework of these themes, Alvarez weaves the story of a complicated and brilliant family.

Alvarez raises up two historical women practically unknown in US, and almost forgotten in Cuba. The intricacies of their story, and the original way that she twines together the mother's and daughter's separate lives can be confusing at times, but the final effect is rewarding. Indeed, this novel gives the impression of sitting at the feet of an old woman recounting her long life in jumbled order, but with emphasis on important moments, passionate impressions, wisdom learned and shared.

*Kendra Nordin is on the Monitor staff.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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