Along with millions of others, I’ve long been a fan of Isabel Allende, and I greeted her new work with eager anticipation. I wasn’t disappointed.
Although most famous I suppose for her early works of magical realism such as Eva Luna, Allende has written in a number of genres over her long career, and A Long Petal Of The Sea is another of her historical novels. In my mind and heart, it fits right in with two of my own favorites, Daughter of Fortune and Portrait in Sepia, both set in the time and locale of the San Francisco gold rush. Besides transporting me literarily to a favorite period of mine, they both added greatly to my knowledge of the history of the time, and even provided some inspiration for part of my The Maxwell Vendetta. I owe to her the knowledge that South Americans, Chileans in particular, were running around California mid-nineteenth century.
Petal, however historical, is set neither in California nor in the gold rush. Instead, we open in the midst of one of the most atrocious chapters of the twentieth century–the Spanish Civil War. It’s 1936, and the Republicans are fighting to loosen the dictator Franco’s iron grip on their country.
No government comes to their aid. The Lincoln Brigade, a
brave militia from the U.S., brought volunteers, but without governmental sanction or aid they stood no chance.
It’s a grueling and bloody fight, and one the republicans lost very badly.
Allende follows our principal characters over the Pyrenees into France in the dead of winter, a trip full of unimaginable suffering, followed by more unimaginable suffering in refugee camps.
I hesitate to tell much more of the story for fear of spoiling it, but I will say that many of the family and friends we met during the struggle end up in Chile, whose shape on the map suggested the phrase, created by Pablo Neruda, that is the book’s title. Author Allende is Salvador Allende’s god daughter, so the chapters that involve him and that part of Chile’s history have a special poignancy for those who know a bit about Chile’s history and her connection to it.
Even without that personal touch, though, those of us who lived through that time period (1970’s) or know something of that part of Chile’s history will experience a stab of pain at the U.S.’s involvement in the assassination that brought down Allende’s left wing government and installed Augusto Pinochet.
Pinochet was, ironically, a brute of a dictator easily on a par with the horrid Franco whom our characters had fled. His reign lasted a bloody eighteen years and brought what most dictatorships bring–a country where, like Mussolini’s Italy, the trains run on time but the population lives in fear.
In the end, despite all the brutality and suffering, Long Petal of the Sea is a beautifully written story of love and redemption, a life-affirming tale full of hope and human striving with glorious rewards even in the most inglorious of circumstances. And for those of us who are authors of a certain age (she’s a year younger than I) more proof that mere age does not necessarily lay waste to our creative powers. Gracias and felicitaciones to you, Isabel.