Saturday, October 22, 2011

Conquistadora by Esmeralda Santiago

It is the mid 1820s, and Ana Cubillas is the daughter of wealthy Spanish parents.  She is assured a life of luxury in Spain, but her interest is caught by the memoirs of one of her ancestors.  He traveled to Puerto Rico with Ponce de Leon, and his account of the journey and the country he found there fires Ana's imagination.  As a woman, she has little opportunity to explore her obsession.  That is, until she meets the Argoso twins, Ramon and Inocente.  She fuels their sense of adventure and convince them that they should go manage their family's sugar plantation in Puerto Rico.  Ana marries Ramon and the three travel to their new home.

Thus starts Esmeralda Santiago's new novel, Conquistadora.  The novel follows Ana's life for the next forty years.  It is a sprawling historical that explores daily plantation life, slavery and the relationship between the slaves and their owners, politics, economics, military adventures, epidemics and medicine as well as human love relationships.  The reader learns about all these topics, but it is the story of Ana that drives the book just as her indomitable will drives her and all those around her to conquer the land and create a legacy for those who follow.

Life was often short and brutish on the plantation, and death was never more than a moment's inattention away.  Children are born and if the parents are lucky, they survive to carry on the work of the family.  Civilization is built on rigid social structures, but one of the draws of the colony is the ability to escape the class one was born into and to rise to wealth through hard work and luck. 

Santiago has written a compelling novel that educates while entertaining the reader.  She has written extensively about her Puerto Rican background and is a contributor to NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered.  Her book, Almost A Woman was adapted into a film to PBS's Masterpiece Theatre.  This book is recommended for fans of historical fiction.

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