In the Midst of Winter
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Isabel Allende is masterful at drawing deep, rich characters on her canvass. In her novels she frequently relies heavily on her Chilean origin. I believe the rarity of this angle adds additional interest. (Write what you know is common advice to beginning authors.) Allende is no novice - I first read her in college as prescribed by a literature professor who may also have been Chilean, or Latina at the least. That was thirty years ago - so Allende definitely has staying power. This is the third novel of hers that I read and definitely the most enjoyable. This is a very timely novel that shows a compassionate side to the current Central American migrant situation receiving much attention in the U.S. At the same time, she manages to bring some levity to the story and at times it is downright comical. I found it to be very well written although at the end, perhaps my mind wandered instead of listening to the audio, but I was a little confused about why they went to the Institute. I don't recall them planning to go there during the road trip but all of a sudden they were. And then suddenly they had a bottle of tequila that Richard used to wipe the amulet with. I guess it was a good thing the bottle magically appeared because Evelyn said in vigils there was always liquor. (There is?)
The novel is set in January of 2016 but flashes back through several decades. The current scene is New York City and up-state New York but the flash backs take you anywhere between Canada and Chile, including Chicago, Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil and Venezuela. The elapsed time is approximately over a long weekend from a Friday to a Tuesday in the current day, plus all the stories they tell of their lives through the last half-century.
Sometimes there are things said that seem like if a non-famous, non-Chilean author said them in today's politically charged environment there would be outrage. Like, "However humble the town was, it must have a Chinese or Mexican restaurant." or that fleas don't bite Chileans or Guatemalans but only Richard because he's light-blooded.
Originally I had chosen Jennifer Haigh's "News from Heaven" for our January selection but as I started reading it I found nothing heavenly about it. Simultaneously I had started listening to the audio for the Allende novel on my long drives to work and decided this novel would make a much more interesting book club discussion. "In the Midst of Winter" wraps up loose ends nicely (whereas Haigh's novel was extremely disjointed).
Disclaimers: I listened to the audio book so I don't have page references but tried to maintain the sequence of the book and include the name of the chapter in parenthesis - although many chapters have the same name. I may also spell names differently than they appeared in print. I often made quick notes at stoplights so a lot of the content below is direct quotes because that's how I heard it and remembered it until I got to the light, but I have not included the quotation marks since I didn't have the book for exact reference.
Fun Fact: There is a difference between emigrant and immigrant. In this story, Evelyn emigrates (exits) from Guatemala and immigrates (goes into) the United States.
On a scale of 1 - 5 (5 being a a very sexy / religious / gruesome / etc. book):
Morality: 2 (leans to the immoral side of moral)
Sex - a mention when Richard is watching TV and is frustrated by the scene and yells at the TV to get on with the story then reflects how in years past it was just the allusion shown with a closed door or a cigarette burning out. We hear Lucia think that she'd rather be in bed with Richard and long for a physical relationship with a man but there are no specific details. We also hear Richard's mental gymnastics about dallying with the neighbor or with Lucia but also get no specific details. Reference to a 13 y/o disabled boy wearing adult diapers because of the little bird. A couple was intimate in a sleeping bag while another person slept nearby in the same room.
Religion - Richard wonders if the late-night knock on his door is the Jehovah's Witnesses. Evelyn visits a Shaman. Her grandmother volunteered at church and she and her siblings respected the local priest. Beto Cabrera (the coyote) said prayers. (Evelyn, Mexico 2008) Beto Cabrera and Lena prayed often. (Evelyn, Mexico 2008) Anita believed in a mix of Catholic and animist beliefs seasoned with feminine mythology and candomble, a religion of African descent. She said it was better to believe in everything than nothing - less risk of angering the gods in case they did exist. When her daughter was born in the second year of her marriage to Richard, it was as a fortune teller had predicted and Anita feared that the gods would want payment for such a gift so she engaged in superstitious rituals. She gave credit to a goddess for her pregnancy with Pablo. Talk of Catherine's soul being stuck on the way to Heaven since death surprised her so Evelyn prayed. In Evelyn's Guatemalan village they sacrificed a cock when someone died - but she also said the rosary. Evelyn wanted to fast for Catherine. Lena was Catholic but adopted karma and reincarnation for Enrique's sake. Richard, who really didn't give many clues to any religious beliefs, thought Catherine's spirit was sensing his own past hurts. Evelyn's mom and step-father (Miriam and Galileo) were Pentecostal. Galileo converted in a lightning bolt moment. The Pentecostal church was significant in connecting Evelyn to a job in another town when she needed a safe refuge. Evelyn led the children's class at church. The preacher said teaching was her calling and she should not waste the gift. After significant life events Anita consulted Maria Batista who was considered the mother of candomble saints in Bahia, Brazil. She told Anita to pray and ask for help from Yemoja - the orisha of life. They were concerned about a proper send off for a dead woman and did their best to follow rituals, including prayer.
Gruesome - Gregorio's gang experience. (Evelyn) Cat in the antifreeze. (Richard) A girl is raped and a boy's throat is cut. (Eveyln) Immigrants were warned that police would inspect people's private orifices. (Evelyn, Mexico 2008) Reference to people getting crushed by trains. (Evelyn, Mexico 2008) Evelyn was attacked at work cleaning office buildings. Miriam and two women beat the attacker while the guard pretended not to hear the beating. Doreen fought with Evelyn who hit her head on the table and needed stitches. A four year-old is hit by a car and run-over. Not to mention the dead body a la Weekend at Bernie's.
Suspense - Hints are dropped in the first few chapters about tragedies that people have gone through such as Lucia's youthful breasts that aren't hers or visible scars. Richard felt that rejecting love was his inescapable penance (for 25 years). When his cat got into the antifreeze he reflected that it was "not the first time his negligence had proven fatal". Richard remembers a friend telling him that Anita and Bebe had already forgiven him. The traffic stop at the beginning of the road trip was suspenseful. Richard woke up next to garota and wasn't sure how he got there or what happened.
Morality - Domestic abuse. Richard and a married woman (Susan) have a friends-with-benefits relationship and meet once a month at a hotel. A doctor gave Evelyn the illegal morning after pill. A brief description of sex, drugs and the bar scene. Frank thought it would've been better to let the blue baby die. Frank is described as an unscrupulous rogue from a long line of crooks and swindlers. The Leroy's staff said more than one employee had lost their job for being too curious. One character is thought to be guilty of domestic violence and human trafficking.
Traditional - Richard's dad went to Brazil to visit with Anita's family when they were courting. Frank and Cheryl were married 15 years. She stayed because it was comfortable and for financial reasons even though he beat her. Cheryl takes pills for depression, anxiety and insomnia. He stayed married because he didn't want a costly divorce and she knew too much about his business. When Daniela went home to support Lucia during cancer treatment, she explained to other patients about the gender-fluidity in the U.S. and taught them new terminology like LGBT.
Lucia Maraz - Chilean, daughter of Croatian immigrants Lena and her husband, a traveling salesman who died in a car crash, sister of Enrique. After he died it was discovered that Lucia's father was a bigamist who had a second family. Enrique believed in Marxism, idolized Che Guevera and supported Salvador Allende's Socialist party with its "Popular Unity" platform. (Fun Fact: Isabel Allende is the daughter of Salvador Allende's cousin.) Lived in Chile 1954 - 1973. She took refuge in the Venezuelan embassy as an asylum-seeker which led her to Caracas where she met a Sociologist with whom she immigrated to Canada. She lived in exile 19 years. When she returned to Chile some thought she was a coward for leaving, others thought she was a communist for coming home. She built a career as a journalist and was married to Carlos for 20 years. Breast cancer survivor. Her mother's death was harder to face than her divorce OR cancer. In her late 60's or early 70's she lived in Brooklyn, NY in 2016 where she worked as a NYU professor and rented a room from her colleague, Richard. Her daughter, Daniela, lives in Miami. She's had dramas in her past and mistrusts happiness. She has made due with little affection. She doesn't attract Americans. She thinks seduction needs humor but her Chilean irony is untranslatable and often perceived as offensive.
Richard Bowmaster - grown son of Joseph and Chloe. Rents a basement apartment to Lucia and owns the home and lives in the three floors above it. He has four cats, which he got to handle mice. They are named one, two, three and four in Portuguese (um, dois, tres and quatro). He keeps his printer on the third floor just so he can get exercise and be conscious about what really needs printing. He writes poems but never edits them - the thought of it makes him nauseous. He's multi-lingual - he learned Portuguese with his mom's family and perfected it with his wife, Anita, a Brazilian. He was a political science major who specialized in Brazil because he spoke some Portuguese since his grandparents were from Lisbon. He went to Brazil when he was 29, between 1985 and 1987 and saw the first presidential election in that country. He didn't understand the art of seduction. He would watch single women flirt in a friendly way and see the Brazilian men respond with their typical gallantry that Richard found impossible to imitate and not confuse it with sexual harassment. He learned Japanese to appreciate haiku. He's also learned Spanish and is able to order food in Spanish because, "apparently almost all the waiters in the country were Spanish speakers". He's very practical and afraid of dying alone. He texts his elderly neighbor every day so that if she doesn't hear from him she will come look for him. His text says "still alive" and she replies, "shit, me too". He takes green pills for anxiety and pink pills for stomach acidity. Eligible for medicinal marijuana due to ulcer and headaches.
Joseph - Richard's father. 96 and lives in a senior center nearby. A multi-lingual, Jewish emigrant who understands the plight of the persecuted. His emigration led him to Lisbon where he met Chloe who sang Fado at night. Joseph has always been in support of immigrants and was jailed twice for helping them in the '80's.
Anita Farinha - Richard's late wife, a Brazilian dance instructor.
Evelyn Ortega - Guatemalan, grand-daughter of Concepcion Montoya, daughter of Miriam who went to Chicago in 1998, when Evelyn was 6, and her father who went to California when she was a baby and started a new family, they supposed. Sister of Gregorio and Andres. Attacked in her home, along with Andres, on 3/22/08 while her Grandmother was at church. Stutters. Has been in the U.S. for eight years. Began working in Brooklyn as a nanny for Frank and Cheryl Leroy in 2011, taking care of their older son, Frankie, who is a diabetic with cerebral palsy.
At a seminar Lucia claims the CIA helped overthrow democracies in Latin America in favor of totalitarian governments that no American would accept. When a history professor from California mentions the violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador and the thousands of unaccompanied children trying to escape or find their parents, Lucia suggests re-organizing the sanctuary movement of the 1980's (when churches,lawyers, students and activists helped refugees deported by Ronald Reagan).
Emigrants sent money back home. Approximately two-thirds of school children had parents living abroad. The priest said that billions were sent home - helping the Guatemalan economy. (Evelyn)
Coyotes (immigration guides) may abandon their clients anywhere in Mexico, subject them to in-human conditions or traffic young females.
Operation Condor linked dictatorships and repression services of Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia and Brazil and led to 60,000 deaths. Sometimes there were errors in trafficking bodies of prisoners and their identities and documentation. (Lucia)
Richard wrote his doctorate regarding the actions of the Brazilian oligarchies and allies that led to the 1964 overthrow of the economic model adopted by left-wing President Joao Goulart who was ousted in a military coup backed by the U.S. following the doctrine of national security to combat communism (like many other south American countries). It was replaced by 21 years of military dictatorship including oppression, censorship and mysterious deaths. Goulart died in exile of a hart attack but many suspected foul play. Richard interviewed his widow whose poise and representation of the political ideal endeared Brazil to him.
There is a reference to the snowstorm / blizzard "Jonas" which was a name used to reference a snow storm that did occur in 2016.
Racial commentary: During a traffic stop Lucia commented that she knew how African American's feel.
Miriam said the whites blamed the Hispanics for economic problems between 2008 - 2011.
"Donald Trump's hateful presidential campaign, although few people took him serious as a candidate." (Lucia - Richard)
The book opens with a quote from Albert Camus, "In the midst of winter, I finally found there was within me an invincible summer." How is this quote fitting for this novel?
Lucia felt less lonely after she made the cazuela. What foods help you fight loneliness? What things give you fear like a child?
Even in 1973 Lena believed some news was fake. Is fake news a real problem and how long has it been going on?
Lena realized that she had to get over her anger, not her husband's betrayal, because it was her anger that was holding her back. What lessons can you learn from Lena?
When Salvador Allende took office his political rivals declared all out war - much like the U.S. Democrats have done against Trump? How can we keep history from repeating itself?
Lucia protested on both sides of an issue, for the fun of it.
Have you ever protested something? Tell of your experience.
Would you go work in another country to support your family back home? How far away would you travel?
Miriam sent second-hand clothes so that Concepcion could sell them in the market.
Consider for a moment that some of your cast-off clothing has made its way to Central America to be sold to support a family. How does this make you feel?
What do you think causes gangs? The priest says the violence and gangs stem from poverty - they don't go hungry in gangs. The doctor said it was addiction to power. "If you had power and impunity, would you make the guilty suffer as much as they do their victims"? (the doctor asked) The priest said he always thought turn the other cheek just opened one up to a second slap. Do you agree with them?
The shaman (Felicita) spoke of the feminine power of life and said it used to be both but now it's asleep in men so there is war but power will re-awaken and good will spread over the earth; there will be peace and evil deeds will cease. She claims all the wise, native people she's visited made the same prophecy.
Can you correlate it to today's world events?
Some of the exiles in Vancouver lived in such close communities it was as if they'd never left their home country. They didn't mix with Canadians. Many of today's immigrants in the U.S. live the same way as Lucia observed. Should they mix in more?
Were you surprised that the body in the coffin was not who Lena expected? (Lucia)
Did Lena do the right thing? Lucia told her mom (Lena) to accept the assumption of Enrique's death before she went crazy - but Lena refused. Which was the best way to handle it?
Lucia had a bossy streak. (Lucia, Richard, Evelyn) Where did she get all the knowledge and practicality?
She insisted Richard drive the Lexus because he was a white male and the police wouldn't stop him even if a foot was sticking out of the trunk. Do you share her perception of law enforcement officials?
Should the emigrant group have moved on without the mother and sick baby when they were in the hospital? (Evelyn, Mexico 2008)
There were rumors in 2008 that the U.S. Government paid to deport people from Mexico before they crossed the U.S. border. Do you believe the rumor? Is it a worthwhile plan?
Richard's stomach was as much a character on the road trip as Marcelo.
Where's the worst place you've had to use the restroom on a trip?
Lucia had nervous giggles after the traffic stop. Have you ever had an attack of nervous giggles? When?
Galileo said: No one is illegal in this life. We all have the right to live in this world. Money and crime do not respect borders...why should humans? Do you agree?
Anita said (in regards to fidelity), "What the eyes don't see, the heart doesn't feel."
Could you live by this philosophy?
POTENTIALLY SENSITIVE TOPIC: The death of a child is no easy thing for a mother. Anita consulted Maria Batista for advice. She was told that suffering has no purpose and is futile unless it is used to cleanse the soul. Tears wash us from the inside out. Maria pointed out that the baby is in Heaven and Anita was in Hell. I
s this good advice to give a grieving mother?
Richard thought that Anita's mood swings were due to her "tropical temperament" but never told her so to avoid accusations of his being racist. Do you consider that a racist statement? Was Richard in any way a racist? Have you ever been accused of being a racist? Discuss modern society's casual/overuse of the racist allegation.
The psychologist thought it was a normal female sentiment to wish to be a widow (as Cheryl did) or wish their husband dead. He said the "waiting room was filled with repressed, furious women." (Evelyn - Brooklyn - 2011-2016) Do you think it is a normal sentiment, even if not a majority sentiment?
Miriam felt her daughter had grown up and she had lost her. (Evelyn)
Did she ever have her? How could their relationship have been better?
When Lucia was going through a divorce AND battling cancer (Lucia 2008 - 2015) her daughter Daniela told her not to focus on what she didn't have (immunity) but what she did have.
Take turns filling in this statement: I don't have ______ but I do have ______.
Lucia said at fifty she still felt thirty. Do you feel younger or older than you are? By how many years?
Daniela said, Hearts don't break like eggs, but if they did - wouldn't it be better to let the emotions spill out? Do you let your emotions spill or keep them contained?
Why did Evelyn not go help with the car in the lake? Why did they not leave Catherine in the car?
When Evelyn followed the jaguar tracks, Richard and Lucia gave in to the mystery and followed along.
Tell of a time you gave into a mystery.
When Catherine was discovered, the initial reports were about the sacrifice of a virgin with devil symbols. Subsequent reports amended that she was not a virgin and that the demonic symbol was actually a Mayan goddess used as a common tequila bottle adornment.
Is the haste of reporters a problem today? Who's responsible?
Richard said most college students couldn't find Chile on a map. Provide your guests with blank maps of South America and see how many countries they can fill in. Give a south american themed prize to the one who gets the most correct.
Serve "cazuela", a Chilean stew that Lucia made during the blizzard with a well-seasoned stock, fried onions and meat (beef), cooked vegetables (green beans), potatoes and pumpkin and rice. Serve with Pisco like she drank when she was lonely and afraid.
Serve tamales like Concepcion and Evelyn made and sold in the market.
Serve fried plantains like Evelyn made for her Grandma (Lena) and her brother (Andres). (Evelyn)
Serve Chinese food, including Chow Mein, as Richard found for them on the first night in the hotel.