Untie the Strong Woman
by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D.

Sounds True, Inc., 2011. ISBN 978-1-604-07635-6.
Reviewed by Jude Whelley
Posted on 11/07/2011
Review of the Month, November 2011

Nonfiction: Faith/Spirituality/Inspiration

In 1996 I received Clarissa Pinkola Estés' Women Who Run with the Wolves as a gift. I read and enjoyed the book but did not deeply engage with it until 2006. At that time changes in my life gave me a new and different appreciation for the stories. It is the kind of book that reveals new meanings as the reader grows and changes. Estés is a cantadora, a keeper of the old stories in the Latina tradition. She is also a Jungian psychoanalyst and poet. I grew to love Women Who Run with the Wolves and find the archetypal stories soothing and inspiring as well as insightful.

This book, Untie the Strong Woman: Blessed Mother's Immaculate Love for the Wild Soul is similar but more personal. Estés' great devotion to the Blessed Mother is evident from the first page. Yet, one does not have to belong to a faith that honors Mary to grow in understanding. Isn't that what great stories do? The most universal tales can be the most personal. As is Estés' gift, she weaves stories both well known and obscure with her personal experiences so you feel you are living the story with her.

The artwork is amazing and relevant. Many chapters begin with art created by Estés and designated ex-voto. This is from the Latin, ex voto suscepto or "from the vow made." They represent gratitude for assistance received and testimony to encourage others. Estés, in the Notes to the Reader, asks only "that these ex-votos, as was their original intent, might also bless and be just right for some part of your precious life too, and for those you care about." This reflects the tenor of the entire book. While her personal belief in the Blessed Mother is evident, she gently tells the stories in all their cultural diversity, and creates for her readers a widely encompassing view of "Mother."

The chapter titles are stories themselves. From How the Great Woman Was Erased: Our Part in Restoring Her Untie the Strong Woman, to Forged in the Fiery Furnace The Black Madonna, to: Refusing the Holy: No Room for You Here The "Oh Yes, There Is Too Room for You Here" Ritual of La Posada, the italicized words set the tone, the rest begin the story.

The Refusing the Holy: No Room for You Here chapter provides an example of the power and beauty of this book. Posada ritual is based on the familiar-to-all story of Mary and Joseph being turned away from the crowded inns and forced to stay in a stable where the baby Jesus was born. The reenactment ritual has Mary and Joseph traveling from house to house in the town being repeatedly turned away before finally finding a place to stay. Estés looks at the underbelly of being locked out, denied something, or sent away, reminding us that we have all been exiled in some way. She tells of a Posada where some of the "actors" in the first houses broke with the script and wanted the travelers to stay and had to be admonished to stay with the story. They were so caught up in compassion for the young pregnant woman that they wanted to take her in! She taps into the birth stories that we all have, the rejection stories we all have, and the joy we all know when a place of rest is found. Appropriately, the ex-voto that begins this chapter is the collage "El Christo de La Lave: Mary's Miracle Child" asking intersession for help with becoming pregnant, for those longing for a child.

Each chapter includes some of Estés' poetry, usually at the close. Here is an excerpt from the closing poem La Posada: The Welcoming Inn at the Side of the Road.

Sometimes, begging from door to door
         is the only way
      to find shelter for the Holy.

      Even when doors slam shut,
       one will open eventually,
       And the firelight inside
       Will jump through the dark
          So that light meets Light,
          Like steel sharpens Steel.

The twenty-four chapters tell a complete story but can be read in isolation as well. The Notes and Notes to the Reader sections add depth to the references and illustrations in each chapter. If you are new to Estés' work, the section An Unconventional Biography will give you a context to understand the author.

This is a beautiful book. The visual imagery is unique and supplements and extends the story. The blend of traditional story, contemporary story, poetry, and historical context creates a richness for the reader to plumb. It is a book that looks closely, peels back layers, and offers new meanings and insights. It is, like Women Who Run with the Wolves, a book to be kept and reread because as the reader grows so too will the understandings and insights.

Read an excerpt from this book.

Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D. is an internationally recognized scholar, award-winning poet, Jungian psychoanalyst and cantadora (keeper of the old stories in the Latina tradition). She is the author of the bestselling book Women Who Run with the Wolves, as well as many other books.

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