Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Bless Me Ultima

Bless Me, Ultima is a magnificently written coming-of-age story.  Although this is a novel, author Rudolfo Anaya draws heavily on his real-life experiences growing up in a Spanish-speaking community in New Mexico in the 1940s.  He paints a colorful and textured picture of a multi-cultural, multi-lingual, and multi-religious environment, exploring the tensions that arise from the successes and failures of blending disparate cultural elements.

Young Antonio, the main character, struggles to find harmony among the conflicting aspects of his own nature.  His father's family are cowboys, a loud and boisterous people accustomed to living on the high plains, wanderers of open vastness, riding horses before they can walk. His mother's family are quiet, settled farmers of the valley, people attuned to the earth, who hope Antonio will grow up to be a Catholic priest. Contention over which of those paths he might take begins quite literally at his birth, and Antonio is both cursed and blessed with elements of both natures.

Ultima, who has a profound influence on Antonio's life, is a curandera, an herbalist, healer, and midwife.  Some revere her as a woman who has never sinned, while others fear she may be a sorceress or witch.   Antonio and Ultima share a deep bond, for it is in the nature of both to feel  the rhythms of the earth and the seasons, to sense the presence -- not quite a spirit -- of the river, and to dream prescient dreams.

I read this book slowly, savoring the prose. At times, I stopped to read a paragraph over again, sometimes even out loud, just for the joy of the language.  I think most readers will find this book worthwhile, but I have to acknowledge my own special interest in it.  I am an anthropologist by inclination as well as training, and so am impressed by Anaya's gift for translating cultures, and not just words.

I plan on incorporating this book into some of the anthropology courses I teach, because I think it can be a valuable learning experience.  I am certainly not alone in making that evaluation, since the book is widely used in high school and college classes.

It would be criminal to deny this book to any reader old enough to comprehend its language.

Yet Bless Me, Ultima occupies position number 78 on the American Library Association's list of most frequently challenged books of the 1990s, and made it to position number five on the list for 2008, for reasons of "occult/satanism, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, and violence."  While charges that the book is sexually explicit are fabricated out of nothing, the other complaints have some factual basis.  There is violence in the book, essential to its life-and-death theme, and none of it gratuitous.  Strong language is used, most of it in Spanish, and all of it a realistic portrayal of the way people speak. Occult themes are also central to the book, which is not always kind to the Christian religion, although no claim for one religion over another is actually made.

An LA Times article of Feb. 4th, 2009, describes one recent challenge. The book was left in the school library but was taken off a 10th-grade reading list at Orestimba high school in rural California.  This was instigated by a parent who "initially complained about the vulgar language, the sexually explicit scenes and an anti-Catholic bias," and later added that the book's themes "undermine the conservative family values in our homes."   While the school board claimed their ban was motivated by excessive profanity, one cannot help but suspect that school board unlawfully removed the book because of objections to the ideas it contains.

More info on Bless Me, Ultima can be found on Wikipedia, Cliff Notes, and Spark Notes.


  1. Wow, this book didn't particularly interest me when I first saw it, but now I'm curious.

    I guess censorship does have its good points, people like you and your students get to enjoy great books because of all the attention called to them!

  2. I'd be interested in your reaction, if you do read it. I have to admit that although stepping into censorship debates often leaves a bad taste in my mouth, I've been rewarded by reading some excellent books I never would have read, some I never even knew existed.

  3. Thank you, I'll find it as soon as I can. The holidays are keeping me busy this year though! I'll fit in a trip to the library somewhere.

    I've had the same experience, although reading and being involved in censorship debates often makes me want to tear at my hair, it's introduced me to many books I never would have looked at otherwise, it reminds me of why I value reading so much and I've learned a lot of other things. Dilligence does come with reward.

  4. I read the book slowly and carefully. Banning it is not worth it. The book held my interest most of the time, but is not one of my favorites, nor is it one I would recommend. The references to Catholicism are often untrue, but some people and obviously the author misunderstand the teachings of Catholicism (I am fairly well educated in the Catholic faith, and a practicing on at that!) I did not think the sexual inuendos were all that explicit, but I do think it has a strong anti-Catholic bias. The curses and witchcraft stuff seemed far fetched, but I am not into the occult, so my knowledge of that is thankfully limited. Overall, I thought the book was exaggerated, unrealistic, but the theme of love and sympathy were well done.