» Book Review
Ghosts in the Trees
Day of All Saints by Patricia Grace King
Miami University Press, 2017
Paperback, 96 pages, $15.00
Winner of the 2017 Miami University Novella Prize
Patricia Grace King begins her novella Day of All Saints with an image of ghosts: “Ghosts in the trees. Martín wants to rip them all down. If he could, he’d bury them deep in the flowerbed that he’s uprooting, or stomp them into the grass.” These ghosts, Halloween decorations that adorn a yard in Chicago’s affluent north side, are anything but playful; rather, they represent the suppressed memory of trauma, specifically the horrors of the Guatemalan Civil War, which haunts Martín Silva de Choc, and, indeed, the pages of this stunning short novel. It follows King’s two previous fiction chapbooks, The Death of Carrie Bradshaw (Kore Press, 2011), and Rubia (winner of our very first Jeanne Leiby Memorial Chapbook Prize here at The Florida Review, 2012). Her work is growing in power, and here she draws on her three years spent in Guatemala working with refugees of that country’s civil war.
Although the primary narrative, set in Chicago in the 1990s, unfolds over the course of a single day, King skillfully weaves in flashbacks that take place in Guatemala City. There, Martín, a young language instructor, lives with his grandmother, Doña Ana, and his aunt, Rosa, in the El Incienso barrio, to which he moved when he was four, as “civil war ripped through the rest of the country.” In the first of these flashbacks, Martín falls in love with a US foreign exchange student, Abby, even as her social, economic, and national privilege cause her to fetishize, to romanticize through a Eurocentric lens, the very neighborhood in which Martín lives. “This feels Mediterranean, somehow,” says Abby, “‘If you just nearly shut your eyes … If you look through your lashes.’” Indeed, the crux of the work hinges on how Martín and Abby, though in love with one another, cannot communicate in a meaningful way due to their different cultural identities and experiences. Doña Ana, in telling of her former life in the Ixcán in the 1970s, echoes this difference when she juxtaposes Guatemalan culture with US culture. Of her own culture, she says,
And I had my own small diversions: nights I sang with the neighbors, down at the Pérezes’ house—the Pérezes had a marimba—and the priests’ visits on weekends. They came regularly then, to say Mass on Saturday and to hold Spanish classes for us women, since back in the highlands we’d mainly spoken K’iché.
She follows this observation with one of US culture during the same era: “In America, what were they doing—roller-skating? Donna Summer? Don’t look so surprised; I know who she is. Electing Señor Ronald Reagan, too, weren’t they? Who sent our Army so many guns.” This cultural difference, and its underlying significance, permeates the work and is ever-present in Martín and Abby’s relationship. When they move to Chicago, their bond becomes tenuous, and their different social positions and histories more starkly defined. As Abby attends art classes at a university, Martín works as a day laborer. And while Abby has her own past trauma related to her mother, she ultimately has the privilege of security. When she leaves Martín, haunted as he is by the brutal deaths of his parents and extended family members, she finds safe haven in the home of her mother on the north side. Martín, however, bewildered and alone in a new country, finds himself without such material and emotional sanctuary.
King writes a story within a story within a story, and she does so in lyrical language with details so vivid that the reader cannot help but enter the picture she paints. In the primary narrative, Martín searches for and then finds Abby at her mother’s home, and in the secondary narrative, Martín and Abby fall in love in Guatemala. In the tertiary narrative, Doña Ana, over a dinner prepared for Abby at home in El Incienso, begins the story that is the heart of the text—the traumatic events that occurred in the Ixcán and that haunt Martín and his remaining family members.
This narrative, begun in a flashback sequence, ultimately enters the primary narrative as Martín faces the ghosts of his past, who appear before him in a memory long suppressed. He can no longer banish these ghosts, nor can the reader, who encounters them, and the world they inhabit, at every turn. They are “[t]he heat [of the Ixcán, which] was this thing that sat down on your skin and would never let you up. And the mud—you would sink in it up to your knees. You could lose your own shoes in that mud.” They are “‘[t]he fog on those mountains … something you miss when you’ve left them—how it flies from the peaks like white laundry.’” These ghosts drift through the text, hovering on the periphery of the psyche in both Martín and the reader.
In Day of All Saints, King makes a thoughtful social statement about cultural difference and First World privilege: as Martín observes, “Halloween: a day of no real significance in Guatemala. What matters, instead, is El Dia de Todos los Santos, Day of All Saints, one day afterward.” However, she does so without ever allowing that statement to overwhelm the true focus of the story: Martín’s strength and fortitude, indeed the strength and fortitude of his family, the other residents of El Incienso, and the citizens of Guatemala, which shine throughout the course of the text. King’s characterization of Doña Ana; Aunt Rosa; Don Gustavo, Aunt Rosa’s romantic companion; and Ernestina, the young woman of Ixcán who chooses to leave behind her village and her birth name in order to fight for the resistance, is honest, nuanced, and deeply affecting, largely because of how King understates their sacrifices.
Ultimately, though, Martín is the character who most affects the reader, not, solely, because the narrative is focused through him, but because of the complexity of his character. He is a man in love with a foreign woman, a woman who wishes to heal the wounds of his past in the same way that she wishes to heal a wound on his hand, but he is also a man deeply connected to his place of origin, his remaining family members, and his fragmented history. He haunts us, as does the ending in which, hunched against the trunk of a tree in the Palm Room of the Lincoln Park Conservatory, he confronts the ghosts of his past that have now entered his present. It is closing time at the conservatory, but this room is the ever-present Ixcán, where the guerillas, dressed in “camo-green,” await to aid survivors of the army’s ruthless actions, and he is trapped there “[a]mong the wet trees.” He knows that “soon the people in green will come for him too,” with a green-aproned conservatory attendant poised to tell him, “‘Sir, it’s time to go now.’” Where will he go when he leaves the Palm Room? One hopes to a sanctuary of his own creation.