Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading: Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya

Tessa Bright Wildsmith
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Tessa Bright Wildsmith writes the weekly book review Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading. When she's not designing advertising and page layouts for Blount Today, she's reading. She loves books of all kinds, but mostly fiction. Some of her favorite authors are Chuck Palahniuk, Kelly Armstrong, Andre Dubus III and Sarah Waters. Feel free to email her any suggestions you have for a great book.

When “Bless Me, Ultima” was announced as The Big Read selection for this year, my publisher was very excited and insistent that I read and review it. Honestly, I wasn’t looking forward to it. Maybe it’s some sort of prejudice I have against “classic novels.” I usually don’t enjoy them.

This time, however, I was pleasantly surprised.

Six-year-old Antonio Marez is young, innocent and full of wonder. He sees the New Mexico desert, where he lives, with curious eyes and adventure. He wants to understand everything about the world around him.

He comes from two very different blood lines. His father’s family are vaqueros, free spirits that wander and are hard to tie down. His mother’s family are farmer’s and tied steadily to the earth. This cross of such different bloods running through young Antonio confuses him. He doesn’t know which path is for him or where his life will take him.

Antonio’s Aunt Ultima comes to stay with the family. She’s a curandera, someone who cures with magic and herbs. Antonio finds everything about Ultima interesting -- from her connection to the owl that is always close by to the way she speaks to the plants before she takes their leaves and flowers.

Ultima sees something in Antonio as well. She takes young Antonio under her wing and tries to guide him through the confusion of childhood. She attempts to answer all his questions with truth.

Life isn’t easy and young Antonio sees things that are beyond his years. All of these things fill Antonio with more questions. Who is he supposed to be? Antonio is constantly torn between his mother’s devout Catholicism and his father’s wandering blood. Will he be a farmer or a priest or will he be a vaquero like his father? His constant thirst for knowledge and understanding is carried throughout the entire book.

There were a few things that I didn’t enjoy. Whole paragraphs of dialogue are in Spanish. For the most part, I could dissect what they were saying, but this could be difficult for someone who’s never taken Spanish. It made the story a little difficult to follow in places.

Also, the ending was kind of abrupt. Antonio is only 9 or 10 when the story ends, and you never know which path he followed. By the end, Antonio does find some understanding and acceptance, but I was still left disappointed.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. Antonio was pure and innocent and his wonder and questions rang true. Ultima was a mysterious character you never fully understood. Usually that would bother me, but Ultima’s mystery is part of what made her so interesting.

I think The Big Read chose an excellent book this year. And after reading this one, I’m sure I’ll give next year’s selection a chance. Even if it is another “classic novel.”

Have you read “Bless Me, Ultima?” Discuss your thoughts on the book below.

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