Some time back, I wrote a post on Edwidge Danticat’s The Farming of Bones with the subtitle “There is no such thing as a small massacre.” Julia Alvarez’s book How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents is another perspective on the same political situation in the Dominican Republic/Haiti island; it is told not from the viewpoint of the countless number of Haitians who suffered in the massacre which came about at Trujillo’s command, but from the supposedly advantaged perspective of some rich Dominicans who, because of political sympathies which were in line with those of the Haitians, were also deprived of their homes and livelihoods, though the characters in this book in particular were lucky enough to escape without losing their lives or suffering imprisonment. Instead, they went to the United States as immigrants, and were able to re-establish themselves there. This advantage also had attendant disadvantages, however, which is part of the unspooling tale Julia Alvarez unwinds, from the beginning present tense in the novel, when thirty-nine-year old Yolanda (known as Yoyo to her friends and family), the third child in the family of four children, revisits her roots. The tale then moves on from section through section to the family’s past.
Alvarez has cleverly and significantly timed the tale so that she paints the picture not only of small revolutions going on in the family itself (such as when the four daughters, Carla, Sandi, Yoyo, and Fifi, rebel against their Mami and Papi during the sixties and seventies by becoming “offensively” American in their ways of thinking and behaving, and act much as other rebelling youths did during that time period), but she has also slotted the backward-developing story into the space of time such that it is during the girls’ late pre-adolescent period, just before they go to America, that they become aware that their Papi is a Dominican rebel, wealthy and privileged though he may be (he shares this status and these beliefs with many of the other men of the huge de la Torre clan, too). This gradual retrospective story method allows for the girls’ own innocence as pampered rich children in the Dominican Republic to emerge also little by little, showing perhaps what some of the original causes of the revolution were, though there is never any overt or heavy-handed preaching of political views or goals. Papi is just Papi, with his political preferences and his strong love of family.
Beginning with a section describing Yoyo’s present-day visit back to the island from the U. S., the tale is told in consecutive chapters, with each girl’s story told in turn, as a separate kind of “short story” which, however, probably could not stand alone. The story goes back and forth between them, in third-person narration largely, though Yoyo’s sections predominate in number and length by a bit, and some of hers are in first-person narration.The very end of the novel itself is thus the farthest back in time, when Yoyo, the writer-poet daughter of the family, recalls finding a tiny baby kitten, not knowing what to do with it or how to justify adopting it from its mother before it has been weaned, only in a fit of childish behavior to hurl it from an upstairs window. The story ends with her remark that often in her adulthood, waking up from her “bad dreams and insomnia,” she sees the mother cat, “wailing over some violation that lies at the center of my art.” The story is so completely imagined and detailed that I didn’t feel this needed a “spoiler alert,” as in this book one reads for the whole substance and not just for the “whodunit” or final outcome, moving and well-imagined as it is.
To “lose one’s accent” is shown throughout the book to be a double-edged sword: it allows one to defend oneself more readily from outright harassment by those of one’s adopted country who are mean or cruel, and even helps ease one’s way through the shoals of well-meaning condescension by more kindly disposed (if ignorant) Americans. On the other hand, there is a lot more lost with the accent itself as one adapts to a new culture, a whole missing part of oneself which can cut to the quick with its absence. Altogether, this book is a very meaningful and well-considered picture of both privilege and loss, of both development and possible retrogression, which should be on every library bookshelf and which well repays a thorough read-through.