I was a little skeptical about the premise of this book. It was hard to believe that a group of girls would plot to transport the corpse of a stranger from their home in Texas to his home in Mexico. However, the story is based on the Odyssey, and promised magic and divine encounters, so I gave it a try. I was hooked from the first page.
The Summer of the Mariposas, by Guadalupe Garcia McCall, (Tu Books, 2012) tells the story of 5 sisters set adrift one summer after their father has abandoned the family and their mother is always at work. Odilia, the eldest at 16, is responsible for the supervision of the sisters, but the story gives each sister a distinct voice and personality. One of the many things I liked about this book was how well McCall handled the personality of the sisterhood. It’s easy to have one main character, and Odilia is that, but her personality and character can’t be separated from those of her sisters. McCall integrates the multiple views seamlessly.
The town itself has entered a kind of enchantment, beset by a plague of butterflies. There are echos of One Hundred Years of Solitude, but the butterflies here are a symbol of metamorphosis for the Garza girls.
Their life takes on a macabre turn when they are at their favorite forbidden swimming hole and the body of a dead man floats into their lives. Hurting from the loss of their father, they devise a scheme to take the body back to his home in Mexico. Odilia is visited by La Llorna, the weeping woman, who is said to have drown her children. She encourages Odilia to take the journey and gives her a gift to help her along the way.
The story just zooms along from there. The real journey is one of the heart to get back to the place of family, but the physical and metaphorical journey of returning a body, finding a grandmother, and getting back home, is the adventure of the book. McCall is a colorful and poetic writer with a keen sense of plot. She is quite sly and adept at replacing Greek gods with Aztec and Mexican ones.
But where Greek mythology often has a sense of fated doom, this book is shot through with hope and merriment. That is not to say the girls don’t encounter real danger, terrifying beasts and bouts of immaturity. The girls bicker, they forget the lesson they just learned, they yearn for candy. The twin sisters have a private bond and want to be television stars. One of the reasons they don’t call the cops is a fear they’ll look terrible on camera — they want to go home and change clothes first. Little bits of humor like this kept the characters real even in their most surreal circumstances.
This book also portrays a deep respect and love for the blending of cultures, the strength of families and the tenacity of women, young and old. The girls learn the power of kindness and forgiveness, as much as they learn to trust their own strengths. It’s marketed as a Young Adult novel, but I recommend for any age. In fact, an 89 year old friend is reading it now. I hope you get to, too.
McCall won the Pura Belpre Award for her first novel, Under The Mequite, which I’ll be reading soon. She is also a published poet and school teacher.
Here is a link to the publishers site with a great interview with Guadalupe Garcia McCall.