Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s Woman of Light (One World, Penguin Random House 2022) was a highly anticipated read and yet another example of where my expectations for a book are unrealized. One could argue that it was over-hyped and that’s why it fell short, but I’d argue that its failings are due to not providing enough flesh to cover the bones of the plot. The premise? Fantastic. The writing? Gorgeous. The story-telling aspect? Woefully lacking in certain areas.
The novel follows five generations. It primarily focuses on Luz in the 1930s in Denver, but it does time-travel between 1868 and the 1930s. This fragmented way of story-telling works well with Fajardo-Anstine’s writing style and the story of this family. The time-jump sections are my favorite parts of the novel, but they are areas that I felt needed more flesh to give a stronger heartbeat to the novel; This is ultimately a family saga that is missing a bit of the umph of a real saga.
We’ll get to Luz in a minute, but I want to start with the prologue. A woman, Fertudez Marisol Ortiz, abandons her baby to be found by the Sleepy Prophet in the Land of Early Sky, or the Lost Territory. Fertudez tells her son “Remember your line.” The baby is left with a bear claw. The ghosts of four dead priests tell the Sleepy Prophet that the child’s name is Pidre.
Pidre is readily embraced by the town and the Sleepy Prophet’s line becomes his line. (Oh, how I wish we had more on his mother.) The bear claw and the connection to Pidre returns when he falls in love with Simodecea, the most interesting female character in the novel. She’s a sharpshooter who killed her first husband during a performance when a caged black bear broke free and attacked her. She only signed up with Pidre’s show because he said there would be no bears. They fall in love and have two daughters, Sara and Maria Josefina. But the bear will have Simodecea pulling the trigger again – this time, an unexpected “bear.” Sara and Maria Josefina are left to make their own ways.
Both women fall in love with men who don’t deserve them. Sara gives birth to Luz and Diego, and Maria Josefina, without her consent or knowledge, is given drugs to kill the baby growing inside her. She loses all interest in men at this point. Sara goes a bit mad when her no-good husband leaves, and Maria Josefina takes in both Luz and Diego. Maria Josefina is the most reliable and steady of figures in Luz’s life.
Luz can read tea leaves. Diego can tame rattlesnakes and have them do his bidding. (Never thought I’d care so much about two snakes.) The novel is primarily about Luz, “Little Light,” and her transition from girl to young woman in a racist and xenophobic Denver where the Klan marches and brown bodies are regularly beaten and broken by the white police.
I found this novel lacking because it left me wanting, but it fills a void in the literary world as it follows an Indigenous Chicano family in the American West. The novel focuses primarily on the women – their strength, their sins, their secrets, and their magic.
For that alone, read this book.