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Monday, March 17, 2008

Book Discussion: Ines of My Soul

Back to the third Monday of the month and today’s book discussion was on Isabel Allende’s Ines of My Soul. This historically accurate book fictionalizes the true story of the Spanish conquerors of Chile in the 1500s. Ines Suarez narrates the book in her old age, as a memoir being told to her daughter, Isabel. Ines began her life as a seamstress in Spain, but became the first Gobernadora of Chile. Ines relates the trials and jubilation, the hard times and the wonderful moments of establishing Santiago, Chile. Most of the novel is taken up with the story of Ines and her lover, Pedro Valdivia, the war hero, and their bloody struggles with the indigenous people of Chile. This is the story of Ines’ life, a chronicle of the founding of Chile, a comment on the price of “discovering” the New World, and a tale of the power of love.

One of the most striking things about Ines of My Soul is how different it is from the rest of Allende’s work. Here there is none of the magical realism for which she has become so well known, as well as the appearance of much more gritty and violent details. Ines is not only witness to terrible acts of brutality against the indigenous people of the New World, she is a participant in many occasions. For example, Ines decapitates 7 Mapuche soldiers and flings their heads back at the indigenous fighters attacking her settlement. This is a level of violence from Allende’s protagonist that her fans will not have seen before. There were complaints that it was too raw and bloody, but I think Allende wants the reader to understand how life truly was for those who chose to conquer the New World and make their lives there.

Our discussion began on this point. One of our participants commented that she wished the daily papers today described our current war with this level of violent description; maybe people would look more closely at it. Most agreed that they didn't enjoy the violence but felt that it was necessary to give the reader a true sense of how things happened.

This led to another discussion of whether or not we need war and violent invasions to "move forward" as humans. The mixing of cultures does lead to many advancements. Another participant who recently went through some joint replacement surgery mentioned that her doctor was happy with all of the advancements in joint technology. She pointed out to her doctor that with all of these young soldiers coming home without limbs may have something to do with the rate of advancement.

As a whole the group loved how the story is told in an evenhanded way, with both sides of the story being given equal treatment. There were more mixed feelings about the memoir style of this work however. Some felt it detracted from the over all story, while others felt it personalized this "large" story of the history of Chile. Another person mentioned how it made Ines seem more real and earthy. While another participant enjoyed how Ines left no secrets behind.

Some final thoughts, people loved the character of Felipe, they felt Allende did a great job conveying both passion and violence, and all agreed that Pedro Valdivia's story is the classic tale of the corruption of power.

Readers who enjoy Ines of My Soul because of the historical setting may want to try other 16th Century set stories with independent women. Night of Sorrows by Frances Sherwood treads in familiar territory as it recounts the story of Cortes' Mexican conquest through the eyes of his Aztec Princess lover. The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan chronicles the life and times of Mehrunnisa, an ambitious and beautiful young women in 16th Century India, who eventually became one of India's legendary heroines.

Those who like the novel's treatment of the story of the important women who stand behind the "great men" of history thankfully have many choices. One example that our group read in July of 2007 is Sally Hemmings by Barbara Case-Ribould.

For nonfiction, readers should turn to the “Bibliographic Note” at the novel’s conclusion for a wide variety of reading materials used by Allende in her creation of this powerful novel. There one can find histories of the Conquistadors, the Mapuche, and the founding of the Kingdom of Chile. Two others that grabbed BPL's other book discussion leader Kathy's attention are The Conquest of Chile by H.R.S Pocock and The Mapuche Indians of Chile by Louis C. Faron.

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