I love the history of our hemisphere but if I, or most Americans, were asked to give a brief summary, my guess is that the majority of us would begin with Columbus sailing the ocean blue and then cut to the Pilgrims in 1620, perhaps noting that there were some problems with the Native Americans in Mexico and maybe Peru. Then we'd go on to explain the growth of the thirteen colonies.
Not so for my fellow U. S. citizen, Esmeralda Santiago, a native of Puerto Rico, who tells quite a different story in this sweeping and highly detailed historical novel that stretches from November 19, 1423 when "visitors from the sea" swept onto an idyllic island. There they changed (and ended many) lives of the original inhabitants. Over the next century, the conquistador indeed conquered the island, making fortunes as they did. Many sent home not only their wealth but also records of their journeys.
After she recounts these adventures (for the conquerors) and tragedies (for the conquered), Santiago shifts her story forward to early nineteenth century Spain. Here we meet an unhappy young girl, Ana, who takes refuge in the journals of one of her forbearers, Don Hernan Cubillas Cienfuegos, a conquistador serving under Ponce de Leon in 1508. Ana becomes enamored not only by the adventures but also by the island itself. She dreams of going there but also knows that she was born too late and that women of her time cannot have such adventures.
But wait! On her eighteenth birthday, by chance and her own wiles, she marries a young man whose family fortune is based in Puerto Rico and who shares her dream of returning to the island. The couple, along with his family, embark on a journey to create a new existence that gives Ana exactly what she has dreamed of: a life of island adventure.
She and her husband, along with his twin brother, reclaim a sugar cane plantation far from the city. Ana, a young wife and soon a mother, before long becomes a widow left on her own to tame this wilderness. The unfolding story is Ana's, but through Santiago's careful research and skilled storytelling, the reader sees not only through Ana's eyes, but those of the people who work with and for her. Conquistadora is a complicated story and it is well told.
To my mind, reading historical fiction is a grand way to learn history. Not only is the genre more pleasant than reading most (not all) history books, but a novelist can add personal details and insights that would never appear in a comparable nonfiction version. This book achieves that well and Ana's story is fascinating on its own.
Born in Puerto Rico, as a teenager Esmeralda Santiago moved with her family to New York City. A Harvard graduate, Santiago is the author of many books both fiction and nonfiction. She adapted her memoir, When I Was Puerto Rican, Almost a Woman into a film for PBS's "Masterpiece Theatre." The mother of two grown children, she lives with her husband in Westchester County, New York. Learn more on her website.
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