Life, love and danger in old Puerto Rico

Warning: Here’s another audio book that might make you waste precious gasoline if you listen, as I do, while you are driving. There are many passages in this book where I was unwilling to stop listening, even if I was about to reach my destination.

By Linda Brinson

CONQUISTADORA. By Esmeralda Santiago. Random House Audio. 14 compact discs. 18 hours. Read by the author. Also available as a hardback book from Knopf. 414 pages. $27.50.

More than once, as I listened to this fascinating historical novel, I thought that its heroine could be called the Scarlett O’Hara of Puerto Rico. Not that Conquistadora is just Gone With the Wind set in Puerto Rico instead of Georgia. Far from it – this book is a grand, well-researched saga that starts with the arrival of the Spaniards on the island in 1493. It presents a much more realistic and complex picture of slavery and its effects on slaves and masters than Margaret Mitchell’s romantic saga does.

Nor is Ana Larragoity Cubillas a Spanish Katie Scarlett O’Hara. Ana is a deeper thinker than Scarlett, and even as a girl she has a much more ambitious goal than dancing with all the handsome young men and marrying her favorite. Growing up in an aristocratic family in Spain, Ana knows about her ancestor who traveled with Ponce de Leon to Puerto Rico. She wants to have adventures; she wants to be a conquistadora. For her, winning a man is not an end in itself; it is a way to get to Puerto Rico.

But there are important similarities between these two books and their heroines. The historical period is the most obvious, as the Civil War in the United States is a pivotal event in both books. In Conquistadora, the war in el norte comes after Ana has worked for decades to build her sugar plantation at Hacienda los Gemelos, and its repercussions could undo everything she has built. The war comes much earlier in Scarlett’s story, threatening the way of life the young belle has known as she grew up at Tara, her father’s plantation.

And, though they are very different when teenagers, and are shaped by different experiences, Ana and Scarlett eventually display some strikingly similar traits. Those traits, more than anything, are what sometimes brought Scarlett O’Hara to mind as I heard the story of Dona Ana: Both characters are strong, resourceful, selfish, single-minded and ruthless if necessary. Both refuse to conform fully to the expectations of their male-dominated society. And both are survivors.

Ana manages to live out her dream of going to Puerto Rico by marrying Ramon, who, along with his twin brother, Inocente, has inherited a sugar plantation in a remote part of the island.  Life there, though, is not as idyllic as a young girl’s imaginings. Their existence on the plantation is hard, rough and dangerous. Growing and processing sugar cane is a difficult and labor-intensive business, dependent upon slave labor. There is an uneasy tension between slaves and masters, adding to the dangers that surround the isolated plantation.

Ana faces many challenges, some of which are at least partly her own fault. She deals with whatever comes her way – betrayal, deaths, childbirth, financial woes, hurricanes, cholera – with courage and tenacity. After much heartbreak, she eventually finds a man who is her match.

But life can be cruel, and just as Ana finally begins to understand some truths about herself and what is important, everything she has worked for is in jeopardy.

There are at least two powerful stories in this book, that of Ana, and that of Puerto Rico. Like many people in el norte, I had only a vague understanding of the history of that commonwealth. It’s enlightening to realize that even while the island was still ruled by Spain, its fate was closely tied to events in the United States.

Esmeralda Santiago’s reading of her own book greatly enhances the experience of listening to it. A native of Puerto Rico, she has a lovely accent that made me happy to listen to the occasional Spanish phrases I would have skipped on the printed page.

I felt not that she was reading her work, but that she was telling me a story she knew by heart.

One response to “Life, love and danger in old Puerto Rico”

  1. At the beginning of the review, I thought I’d read this book on my Kindle. In the middle, I knew for certain I wanted to read it right away. At the end, when I read this line, “I felt not that she was reading her work, but that she was telling me a story she knew by heart,” I decided that print would never do for such a work. Now my first foray into audio books!

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