Mamá said Papá had to work far away because there were no jobs in Bogotá, but all I knew was sometimes we told Papá about things, and sometimes we didn’t.
The Santiago’s lives behind a gated community may as well be a different world entirely from where their new, thirteen year old maid Petrona comes from. Despite their differences, or perhaps because of them, Chula is drawn into a friendship with her. Where Chula and her sister Cassandra spend their days full of mischief, harassing the local ‘witch’ and letting their wild imaginations run free, Petrona’s life is spent working for her poverty striken family, consumed with fears about her brothers and sister, all too aware of the drug lords that swallow young men, seducing the poor with food, televisions (even if they don’t work), and promises of power. The threat of danger, of death is nothing for a boy to fear when compared to the present suffering and humiliation of their circumstances. A hungry belly is a beast, a desire for respect and strength is a lure used to tempt the young into a life of crime. Petrona will protect her siblings, she must, even though she must sacrifice her youth, her happiness. Even if her brother spits at her, shames her.
Kidnappings by guerrillas for ransom are a constant threat, everyone knows someone who has been kidnapped even Chula’s own sister nearly fell victim in her infancy to abduction. Chula’s Mamá extends help to that other world, similar to the place she herself hails from, by hiring young girls desperate to feed their families. She knows that not all can be trusted, however, that the ‘help’ is more often than not linked to criminal activity. Petrona surely won’t last, not with her silent ways, her fearful eyes. The sisters begin to watch her, like big game, but it’s Chula who wonders at the thoughts in Petrona’s head. Charmed by the mystery, could her silence be a ‘spell’, the youthful fancies of their minds makes for many antics through the novel, getting them into dangerous situations. The playfulness of their days makes the dreariness and shock of Petrona’s missing childhood freedoms that much more harsh. Watched over by an astute mistress, Petrona mustn’t fail, she needs every bit of her earnings to feed her family, to be the ‘head’ of the house that her brothers have failed at.
Chula’s parents are rarely together, with her father away working hard. Mamá is a beautiful woman, one every man notices, a woman with her own needs and desires. A woman who runs the house differently when ‘Because Mamá grew up in an invasion she prided herself in being openly combative, so people who pretended to be weak disgusted her.’ Both parents are wrapped up in wars and politics that Chula is too young to understand, even if she finds herself interested, longing to be as informed and clever as her father. Petrona’s existence is nothing like theirs, she lives in a home made of garabge.
The day her ‘bleeding’ came, her mother informed her she was to marry or go to work. Raised to be the little mama of the house, her life is surrounded by worn out women, broken people, those worse off driven to begging. Boys are meant to focus on an education, the girls are meant to support them with hard work. Some end up drug addicted or working for druglords, others dead. She knows she must work her fingers to the bone, be brave so the Santiagos keep her on as maid. Petrona’s family is interested in everything she has to confide about the wealth of the Santiagos from what they eat to the size of their home. Despite her promise to keep their hungry bellies fed, she knows it may not be enough to keep her little brother from the comforts that the encapotado (covered ones) can seduce him with. Violence and shame will come to her home, despite the sweat on her brow from her hard work.
The Santiagos aren’t as immune to the threat of violence as they think, and it escalates. Mamá’s burning sage to ward off evil may not be enough to keep her girls safe nor will the tall retaining walls the government built to keep the rich safe from poor people like Petrona. Car bombs, the threat of Pablo Escobar, all of it is creeping closer and closer to the rich, proving it cannot be contained, escaped. Superstitions dominate Chula and Cassandra, belief that protection from witches and all evils of the world are possible but Petrona knows of no spells to afford her protection. Petrona’s desperation leads her to the flowers of the drunken tree; a wonderful tie to the title of the novel.
Petrona’s state of despair after a loss makes her heart ripe for first love in the shape of a man named Gorrión. Is he salvation? Destruction? Her choices and entanglements lead to consequences that touch them all. Just what will a young woman do to crawl out of the slums, to attempt to conquer the pit of misery that has stolen so much from her. Where has hard work and loyalty gotten her? Two families have to find ways to survive as the extreme violence of Colombia escalates each day, but can they? Following Petrona was far more fascinating than Chula’s life, but that is the point. Chula is seduced herself by the mystery of the young maids existence. Petrona’s youth and innocence betrays her, but with limited choices how could she have done anything differently, how could have the wisdom to know what the cost will be? How could she know if she’ll be saved or find backs turned on her?
Power struggles carry the novel, not just in politics and crime but within ones own family, within the class system. What is left when you start with nothing, everyone you love is taken from you? A beaten people, forced to bend to those who have everything. A place where hero and criminals are hard to tell apart for people who are suffering and everyone slowly disappearing. What is left when you had everything and are forced to abandon your home and country? Forced to start all over again, separated from your husband, with no idea if he is dead or alive.
This is a unique novel that is a coming of age for two girls from completely different worlds. It is a story of survival, of upheaval. The novel crawls at times, but it’s interesting how everything that is happening is perceived in different ways not just between Chula and Petrona but between Chula, her sister and their mother. We don’t understand things the same way as the ‘grown ups’, certainly not the scope of danger. Nothing can return to what it once was, not even when the family is ‘together’, and Chula’s reaction to her father is genuine. I wish I could go into that more, even though it’s such a short part of the novel, it effected me as much as the horrors that occur for Petrona, but I don’t want to ruin the novel.
The ending is as it should be, it isn’t seamless. There remains a lost feeling but it works for me.
Publication Date: July 31, 2018