You may not have been wondering, as I had, what happened to Saint Teresita after the central figure of The Hummingbird’s Daughter saved her fleeing family from extermination by standing atop their train, arms outspread, hair flowing in the breeze, as it chugged through a narrow defile on its way from Mexico to Arizona, escaping attack only because the marauders feared for their very souls to assault the legendary young girl who offered herself in such a sacrificial pose. Then The Queen of America appeared on my Kindle as a birthday gift soon after its publication and wonder replaced the wondering.
We find the Urrea’s–not the author, but his ancestors–Teresita and her father, Tomas, ensconced in modest circumstances in Arizona desert mountains. lt’s a refuge from enemies as well as from Teresita’s followers who have exhausted the family seeking healing and blessings. Tomas maintains an income from his Mexican holdings, and they remain in contact with their cousin in El Paso, who makes a living publishing a newspaper devoted to the overthrow on the Mexican dictator Diaz.
The peace doesn’t last long. Assassins appear along with pilgrims, and the world returns to essentially the same turmoil they fled from in Mexico. However, they are not in Mexico, they are in turn-of-the-twentieth-century America, a yeasty mix of new politics, religion, business, and technology. Before long, Teresita’s healing turns into a commercial enterprise, and we commence an entertaining and meaningful journey from El Paso to NYC and points in between, during which we experience a host of new-fangled gadgets up to and including a flying machine, hear a montage of popular melodies, and feel what it’s like to become a stranger in a strange land.
In many ways, The Queen of America is a coming of age story about Teresita’s emergence from adolescence to adulthood. Even a saint–a title she constantly denies–is subject to the same errors of passion as the rest of us mortals, and thanks to the power of Urrea’s prose–the author’s, not his ancestors–we experience the joys and the consequences of her mistakes right along with her. Her father, Tomas, remains his stubborn, stormy self, and the conflict between father and daughter reaches nearly the proportions of Greek tragedy before the book is over.
Together, I see Queen and Hummingbird as a grand hymn to passion–passion and magic of the spirit of the kind that appears in the person of Huila, a sort of bruja-Virgil who can take us to exotic, dangerous, and joyous realms–if we posses courage and folly enough to follow.