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The literary sequel is a strange beast, beholden to its predecessor and yet determined to break new ground. Mark Twain sums up the uneasy stance of the sequel writer in the first paragraph of his abandoned follow-up to "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn": "That other book which I made before ... Maybe you remember about it. But if you don't, it don't make no difference, because it ain't got nothing to do with this one."
In Queen of America, the multi-award-winning nonfiction writer and novelist Luis Alberto Urrea has given us that rare breed of literary sequel, a story that will satisfy fans of the original while standing solidly on its own.
The prequel in question is Urrea's beloved 2005 novel The Hummingbird's Daughter, in which he tells the magical, engrossing and too-crazy-to-be-anything-but-completely-true story of his great-aunt, Teresa Urrea. The Saint of Cabora as Teresa was called was a Sinaloan healer and rabble-rouser who inspired more than a few Indian uprisings in Mexico. She was said also to have the power to heal the sick and crippled by the laying on of hands.
Drawing on more than 20 years of research, The Hummingbird's Daughter transports the reader into a supernatural world of curanderas and cowboys, rurales, ranchos and revolutionaries. Much loved by book groups and booksellers, the novel won the Kiriyama Prize and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. In other words, it's a tough act to follow.
Queen of America picks up just a few miles from where "The Hummingbird's Daughter" left off, on the Arizona side of the Sonora-Arizona border. From there the novel follows Teresa in a kind of saintly picaresque back and forth across the United States, from the ice cream parlors and ink-stained newsrooms of El Paso to the cable cars and painted ladies of San Francisco and San Jose, from the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis to high-society New York. "Queen of America" paints an informed and entertaining portrait of a country still trying to find its footing in the first years of the new century.
The nation's adolescence is mirrored by Teresa's journey of self-discovery. If The Hummingbird's Daughter is the portrait of a young girl burning with the fire of sainthood, Queen of America is the story of a saint in exile, coming to terms with the meaning of her powers and finding her place in an unfamiliar society. Near the end of the book after being feted at the Waldorf Astoria, meeting Mrs. Vanderbilt and learning that "everyone in Paris kisses each cheek" Teresa laments the life she left behind, the simple saint she was before all the parties and fancy clothes.
"But where were her herbs?" she wonders as she looks around her apartment. "She had always hung herbs from the rafters. There were no rafters. And where would she find herbs in New York City? She stood in the middle of the room and stared at the floor."
Urrea doesn't fault his great-aunt for her embrace of high society, nor for her dealings with the shady consortium that uses her renown for mutual enrichment. Instead he explores this tension between Teresa's desire for a normal life and her destiny as a saint with a sensitivity that refrains from idealizing the life of the saint, but also doesn't let her off the hook too easily.
Queen of America is filled with wondrous, wide-eyed descriptions of life in the United States at the beginning on the 20th century. Take, for example, this sentence about Teresa's journey into the American Southwest: "The train rocked, its wheels endlessly clacketed on the rails, a vast sewing machine stitching America together, and its lulling rhythm was the closest she got to sleep on that journey."
At times, however, the book can feel a bit weighed down by historical details. Whether dropping names of popular songs, lingering on the cameos of historical figures like Ambrose Bierce, or zooming in on Teresa at the World's Fair eating what was one of America's first ice cream cones, the novel is at times overburdened with the precious jewels of historical research. The book also leaves a number of its subplots dangling precariously, though this probably has less to do with Urrea's storytelling acumen than the exigencies of writing a fictional biography.
At once magical and corporeal, grounding and transporting, Queen of America tells the compelling true story of a young woman caught between worlds, between her childhood in Mexico and her adulthood in the United States, between the spiritual world and the material world. By the end of the novel, these seemingly disparate worlds all merge into a single infinite truth. "There are no more paths," Teresa's spiritual teacher tells her. "There are no more choices. In the end, you are left with this. Yourself."