In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we would like to review the Victor Villasenor novel, Wild Steps of Heaven.
As I read “Wild Steps of Heaven” by Victor Villasenor, I was drawn in greatly by the texture and richness of the culture the book portrays. Following the story of the Villasenor family, it is divided into seven chapters, each focusing on a few characters within the overall story of the family’s struggle against the tyrannical Rurales that rule the Mexican countryside. This is the strength of the book, that it focuses on the stories of individual people within the family, like the romantic story of Jose and Mariposa. The lonely tale of Jose and the rejection by his father allowed me to sympathize with him, as did the tyrannical and violent nature of Mariposa’s husband. Throughout the first chapter of the book I was routing all the way for the two of them (as the author would put it) to find the passion within their own hearts, and join together in a loving and magical embrace.
In the second chapter, we focus on the views of the Villasenor children as they hunt down Dona Josefina, a “notorious witch.” It was not only involving, but entertaining to watch the children as they were wrapped up in their superstitious ways. As I read the rest of the book, I saw that this portion is one of the finest examples of magical realism, and in the way the Mexican culture embraces this style of writing. This is the third Mexican novel I’ve read, and they all diverge into a mystical realm which both diverts the reader from the story, and aides him in his understanding of it. I often felt jolted as the book strayed from the story of the characters and began these long discussions about sex, philosophy, and the relationship between men and women. I found these discussions entertaining and sometimes intriguing.
Throughout the rest of the book, I was marveled at how Jose was able to muster the strength and leadership to fight el coronel and the Rurales. The help and guidance of his grandfather was not only intriguing as a plot-point, but an excellent device on behalf of the author to show the respect and knowledge of the elderly. I thought that the tactical advise Don Pio was able to give was a brilliant way of integrating the culture of the family together with the story and allowing Jose and his fellow fighters to defeat the Rurales in their first battle. I think a weaker writer would have used some other device such as Jose was just naturally gifted in his working with horses, and was able to determine how the horses of the Rurales would react.
I particularly loved chapter four which follows Jose through his conquest of vengeance against the Rurales. While this chapter is exciting, Mariposa’s death is a great depressant on the story. It somewhat dampened the excitement of the war so that I couldn’t enjoy it as much. As I read, I was constantly reminded of Jose’s loss, and this was a great distraction. Even when Jose’s army burnt the Rurales outpost down, it was little compensation for Mariposa’s death. In addition to that, I couldn’t stop thinking about how many bad things had fallen upon this family. Don Juan has lost half his family due to the unspeakable actions of this tyrant. When one reads this book, one feels only sorrow, and that sorrow is not lifted until the very last chapter, when the tyrannical Colonel is finally dead.
Another great aspect of this book is the homage it pays to the role of women in society. It treats the female characters of the story with great respect and reverence as gentle, supportive, and beautiful creatures. Being a hopeless romantic, I enjoyed this aspect of the story, because of the depth of the female characters. You can also see the warmth and tenderness of Dona Margarita through the eyes of her children. When the author describes her actions and relationship with her children (her son’s in particular) they are always actions coated with warmth and compassion. Even the slightest task, like praying, is portrayed as if it were motivated by pure awe-inspiring wisdom. I loved the way the author treated the women in this book with such respect, because it shows how the romanticism of the culture and the era had its impact on people. Another sign of romanticism is the way the book described the peasants and how they regained their land. The way the book described how the land was back in the hands of the ones who truly loved it, made my chest burst with happiness. Both romantic, and nationalistic, it is just one of many instances in the book that made me feel exuberant because a type of romantic justice had triumphed. Perhaps the over-vilification of the colonel is necessary, for the romantic atmosphere of the book.
As I worked my way towards the end of the book, I was drawn on an emotional roller coaster. The incitement of danger at the wedding as the Colonel goes on a murderous rage and vows to kill the entire Villasenor family. The victories and defeats of the two factions were both awe inspiring and horrific, but never boring. However, I often felt like instead of being given the choice to think what I wanted about each faction, I was dragged through the story and told what to believe about each side. While this may sound like a bad thing, I believe it is the sign of a truly great author who has a deep carnal knowledge of his story and is able to convey it. He was able to keep me interested, even though the many comparisons between el coronel’s army and the Villasenor family seemed like a one-dimensional conflict between good and evil.
While it may seem contradictory to say that I disliked one portion of the romanticist atmosphere of this book, and admired the other, I believe that the oversimplification of good vs. evil was unnecessary and distracting. While I enjoyed how the book portrayed the excitement and romanticism of love and life in the Villasenor family, the excessive-vilification of the colonel -which is structurally important for the romanticist genre- seems unnatural and took me as a reader out of the story.
However, the author does an excellent job at conveying moods and events based on who witnessed them. In fact, one can see the clear description of events varies based on who the story is following at the moment. When the story is following the Rurales, it mentions Haley’s Comet, but when it follows the Villasenor boys, it refers to the event as a baby sun. This allowed me to understand the polar-opposite characteristics of the two factions, and it helped add to the richness of the text. The story’s constantly changing tones of tragedy and exuberance were a delight, and an excellent example of the literary artform at its finest.
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