Every so often, a great book comes along—one with an exciting story, full of twists and turns, one that pulls you into another world that you'd like to stay in for awhile, one with carefully polished writing and real world dialogue. A Wasp in the Fig Tree by Mary Bryan Stafford is such a book.
Set in South Texas, in 1958, this story is a coming-of-age tale about 14-year-old Isabel who comes to live with her wealthy aunt and uncle. There's a swimming pool, Italian tile, and a sprawling house. Her mother is there too, after a divorce, but seems to always be busy writing college papers in a quest to find her identity.
Isabel (a gringa) must learn to navigate her new life as well—specifically, Marisol, "the help"—who is four years older than she. One of Marisol's duties is to bring toast to Isabel and her aunt in bed. The aunt buys Isabel "perky little bathing suits with terry cloth jackets to match" and new Roy Rogers cowboy boots. Of course animosity between the two girls is bound to grow.
Marisol taunts Isabel into her first horseback ride and purposely kicks the horse's sides. She challenges Isabel to eat a jalapeņo pepper. There were more escapades—one involving firecracker retaliation on Isabel's part—only to backfire, literally. The author pegs it right about Marisol: "She was full of black lies and skullduggery."
They live in a town divided by the railroad tracks, where there are two of everything—drugstores, clothing stores, movie theaters—one for gringos, one for Tejanos (Texans of Hispanic descent).
Isabel and her best friend, Burt Charles, share many adventures on the ranch—riding horses and watching ranch hands dip cattle for parasites or castrate bull calves. Most importantly, they try to figure out what's going on in the lives of the adults around them, who seem to be hiding the truth. The author begins her book with an anonymous quote: "People live longer down here if they keep their mouths shut." This is a sign of things to come.
Beyond the coming-of-age story, there is a political mystery. And what's interesting is that there's a part of this fictional story that is linked in real life to the author. It turns out that the fictional character, Isabel, is the niece of George Parr, the infamous "Duke of Duval County," member of a corrupt political dynasty. The author is also a niece in the same family. There were rumors in 1948 that Parr finagled votes for Lyndon B. Johnson (bought or forged—some voters may have been "residents" of a cemetery, long since dead), winning Johnson his Senate seat. Parr was convicted of tax evasion in 1974 and given a ten-year prison term. He was found dead at his ranch on April 1, 1975, the apparent victim of suicide.
Written from a young person's perspective, this novel has something for everyone. Readers can relate to their own childhood and the way adult situations were sometimes confusing and misunderstood. There is edge-of-your-seat intrigue and excitement from chapter to chapter as political corruption (but also family love and honor) is played out. And there is an educational open door into Tex-Mex culture, as well as the intoxicating taste of the West. Buckle up your spurs. It's going to be a bumpy ride through the surprises, but a fluid, enjoyable one due to the gifted writing of Mary Bryan Stafford.
Mary Bryan Stafford is a seventh-generation Texan living near Liberty Hill, Texas, outside Austin. Now retired from teaching English and Spanish, she writes, teaches aerobics, and rides and trains horses.
She is a member of The Daughters of the Republic of Texas, and graduated from The College of William and Mary in Virginia with degrees in English and Spanish. She and her husband now live the Hill Country near Austin where she spends her time writing and training her two horses, A Lucky Ferrari and Brioso.
An award-winning author, she was a quarterfinalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest and is published in the anthology Women Write about the Southwest, winner of the Willa Award, in the anthology The Noble Generation III and many times in the Texas Poetry Calendar. In addition to being a quarterfinalist in Amazon's Breakthrough Novel Contest, her fiction has been recognized as a first place winner multiple times in writing contests throughout the country. Visit her website.
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