Lucia Zarate really existed, renowned as the world’s smallest woman. Zoila, the voice of common sense, is her godmother, mentor, and friend. Over the first chapters we are introduced to Zoila and her sad background in rural Mexico, a scene paving the way for a series of adventures beset with cruelty and connivance. She is reluctantly still living surrounded by the region’s vanilla orchards but the redolent scent is not in keeping with her yearning to escape her father’s unkindness. For years he has mocked Zoila’s unbecoming appearance, stressing the likelihood she will never find a fitting suitor. When he dies, despite all his brags of riches, he leaves her virtually destitute.
Without money, but with plenty of spirit and a fine business sense, Zoila leaves home with a vial of her dead lover’s blood and a few vanilla beans concealed in the cleft between her breasts. When she hears about the tiny 12-year-old girl, her maternal instinct swells and she resolves to help the tiny girl escape the superstitious surroundings where she is regarded as a chaneque or sprite. They make a brave twosome. Zoila acquires fake papers that take them to New Orleans, where a Yankee agent is all too ready to find a quirky new performer. Before long, Lucia is taken under the wing of a dastardly impresario, Francis Uffner, who, with lasting dishonesty, vows to make Lucia and Zoila rich. Together, they all go on the road–intermittently accompanied by Lucia’s father, who hopes to put away money to set up his own business in Mexico. For a while, Lucia is compliant, even happy, dressing up in pretty and sophisticated clothes that might fit a doll, dancing on stages set up for displays of mini-people, enjoying her audiences’ applause. But as the years pass, she becomes less enamored of her status and more fearful that brujos or sorcerers are pursuing her.
By the time she reaches her early twenties, she has spurned Zoila, suffered an unsatisfactory romance with one of her fellow performers, and recognized that her appeal is waning. PT Barnum has arrived on the scene and his cast of performers are pushing Uffner’s sideshows away.
The highlight of Lucia’s travels, and of the book, is a last hurrah touring England. All are invited to meet Queen Victoria and other members of the royal family. An intended honor becomes an embarrassment when Lucia is impertinent to the monarch and is whisked back to the States. Uffner, intending to make his fortune exploiting the poor little woman, sees his potential wealth evaporate.
Cecilia Velastegui’s historical novel succeeds on several fronts. Right away readers recognize Zoila as the author’s alter-ego and can perceive her intense sympathy for the small ape-woman and other “freaks” in Uffner’s entourage. Her extensive research results in a remarkable story, identifying real-life doctors and scientists of the 1860s and 1870s and supporting the saga with newspaper articles gleaned from numerous archives.
Today’s historical novels tend to include modern expressions in conversation, both adding and diminishing the legitimacy of the story. Here, the language is relevant and weaves in several Mexican folkloric expressions. After the narrative and an epilogue, readers are invited to answer a series of questions and musings to stimulate their memory of a distasteful form of entertainment.
A word for the colored end pieces – they are quite beautiful and add a delightful touch to the book.
Libros Publishing Llc