Spirits of The Ordinary by Kathleen Alcalá
Set in northern Mexico in the 1870s, Spirits of the Ordinary weaves the stories of women struggling against societal constraints, Mexican Jews practicing their religion in secret, and a gold prospector turned spiritual seeker in a spectacular desert landscape. Winner of the Washington State Governor’s Writers Award and the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award when it was originally published in 1997, Spirits of the Ordinary incorporates styles and themes that the author has continued to explore in her later novels and nonfiction works: speculative fiction, environmental writing, crypto-Judaism, and the Mexico-U.S. borderland in the late 19th century. A tapestry of fascinating lives in a world where visions, dreams, and portents are part of everyday experience, Spirits of the Ordinary demonstrates that, as Alcalá writes in her introduction, “magic and holiness are all around us.” At the turn of the last century, in a small village in northern Mexico, the Caravals have been practicing their Jewish faith in secret. The father Julio, spends his days dabbling with alchemy. His wife, Mariana, cannot speak, but is clairvoyant. Their son is obsessed with his search for gold. Central to the surprising destinies of these characters are the momentous events taking place high in the mountains, at the ancient and sacred cliff dwellings of Casas Grandes. Central to the story is the horrifying impact of the Spanish Inquisition, for 13 generations after all signs of Judaica were wiped from Spanish culture, some members of this family persist, behind bolted doors, in observing and studying Jewish rituals. For them, staying connected to their ancestral faith is paramount, and while each person's path to piety is different, each search proves powerfully moving. Alcalá embellishes straightforward prose with tinges of mysticism that will entice even the most spiritually disinterested. This tale of ordinary people in pursuit of honor, decency, and cultural connection is sure to resonate.