ARE WE BETTER off living as saints in this life so as to gain treasures in heaven?" asks Estela, the heroine of Bainbridge Island author Kathleen Alcal᧳ latest novel, Treasures in Heaven. Set in 1880s Mexico during the dictatorship of General Porfirio D???, whose "progressive" policies included allowing white landowners to take over the ancestral lands of millions of indigenous farmers, this ambitious novel tackles the theme of political awakening in a country on the verge of revolution.
Treasures in Heaven
by Kathleen AlcalᠨChronicle Books, $22.95)
The final book in a trilogy that includes Spirits of the Ordinary and The Flower in the Skull, Treasures begins where the first book leaves off. Having disgraced herself by taking a lover when her husband abandons the family to prospect for earthly and spiritual riches, Estela now embarks on her own vision quest. She and her youngest son No頬eave their provincial town in the north and head to Mexico City, like many of their fellow countrymen and -women, to find a new life.
Emotionally and physically displaced, she contacts her old lover, now married. After renewing their affair, he introduces her to the mysterious La Se�ta, a powerful, wealthy, immaculately pedigreed woman who "seemed to be at the center of a vast network of businesses, romances, and political intrigues." Like a reverse Margaret Thatcher, La Se�ta's single-minded mission is to help the disadvantaged women and children whom the patriarchal government ignores; she hires Estela to run her school for "the desafortunados," who turn out to be not merely poor, as the innocent Estela believes, but the children of prostitutes.
Soon the two women, helped by a colorful cast of characters (including two sisters saved from prostituting themselves in order to buy books to further their education), begin to educate the prostitutes themselves. They also start an all-woman orchestra and publish a series of underground feminist pamphlets, funded by the proceeds from a ladies' magazine sold, ࠬa Robin Hood, to the rich. Their efforts, though risky, are successful; as the government becomes more repressive, it is No鬠now a journalist, who will suffer reprisal.
THOUGH SHE FINDS a place for herself, Estela never feels at home. Known as the Woman in Grey, her drab is dress an outward manifestation of her psyche, which can neither reject nor fully embrace her employer's bold feminism. She moves ghostlike through the novel at the behest of La Se�ta, the brains and spirit of the operation. Estela also waits passively to be summoned for trysts with her lover, Dr. Carranza. A supporter of La Se�ta's left-wing pursuits, privately he's a cad who strings his many lovers along. His name suggests his wishy-washy character—the real-life Venustiano Carranza, elected on a reform platform as the first president of the new Mexican Republic after Diaz's overthrow, failed to live up to his promises and was finally assassinated.
Although Estela gains political awareness, she does not undergo any real, personal transformation that would allow the reader to fully engage with and understand the unfolding historical drama. Likewise, La Se�ta remains static; an enigma wrapped in a mystery, her fortune, influence, and unwavering belief feel contrived and anachronistic. Although AlcalᬠLos Norte�member and cofounder of The Raven Chronicles, has clearly done her homework, it feels like homework: She lodges political speeches like stones in the characters' mouths, weighing them down so that history takes precedence over story. Treasures teaches, but does not, ultimately, enlighten.
Kathleen Alcalᠷill appear at Northwest Bookfest October 22.
More books, please!!