Apr 12, 2009

Bless Me, Ultima

by Rudolfo Anaya

When in college, for a short time I was an English tutor for two Korean high school students. They had to read this book for a class, a classic I'd never heard of before, and I became curious to read it myself.

The story is about a young boy, Antonio, growing up in New Mexico. When he's six years old an elderly woman comes to live with his family, a faith healer who uses herbs and mysticism to cure people of physical and spiritual ills. Her name is Ultima. Ultima becomes Antonio's mentor, guiding him through rough times and teaching him her personal belief system. Antonio has a lot of questions about faith, God, the meaning of life, etc.- but the things Ultima teaches him conflict with with the Catholic teachings his parents follow. Tony struggles to understand the differences and make a choice which he will put his own trust in. He also has to face constant friction between his family members, violence among his peers, and threats from people in the community who believe Ultima is a witch and wish her harm.

Bless Me, Ultima is a strong story of one boy's coming of age and search for answers. But the many interrelated characters and events become confusing and the book is full of metaphors and symbolism which felt unfamiliar to me (not their presence, just the ones that were used). Some readers are put off by the inclusion of many Spanish words and phrases, and the constant cultural references- both of Latino heritage and Catholic traditions- had few explanations and only made me feel removed from it all. I was unable to connect with the main character, or feel engaged in his search for stability and wisdom. I was surprised to find this book has been banned from some schools, apparently because of some violence and s-x - which I don't remember at all, so it must not have been that shocking- and how it deals with religion.

Rating: 2/5                       262 pages, 1972

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6 comments:

bermudaonion said...

You think they could have found something better for students learning English to read.

Jeane said...

No kidding. I remember the girls were often confused because they didn't know if unfamiliar words were English or Spanish! Luckily I know some Spanish, so I could help with that- but even some of the Spanish words were unknown to me.

Bybee said...

One of my profs liked this book (his specialty was hispanic YA) but I got bogged down on page 5.
LOL about the Koreans having to read it though! My students' heads would explode.

Jeane said...

Bybee- I think it was made all the harder because the girls weren't in an ESL class, but a regular English class. If it wasn't for them, I probably never would have finished the book!

Laura said...

This is one of those books that I "kinda" want to read. I'm not in any hurry though!

Trish said...

Oh no! I have this one on my shelf, and I almost thought about pulling it out for the read-a-thon. When my husband's roommate moved out he left the book and I grabbed it up, of course, but I didn't know what it was about until now.