Last week, I finished reading Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore. I previously thought that American Dirt would be my favorite book of 2020 but unexpectedly, Valentine bumped it out of the running by a significant margin. What each of us finds praiseworthy about a book is entirely personal and while I don’t have much in common with the characters in Valentine, the story really spoke to me. The fact that I read Valentine immediately on the heels of American Dirt is purely coincidental, but the two books have a good deal in common—white female authors, Latino characters, issues of race, and a harsh desert setting. I couldn’t help comparing them and wondering why Valentine seems to have dodged the accusative outcries of cultural appropriation that I wrote about in August.
Below are some of my thoughts about Valentine followed by a two-cent tie-in to Banned Books week.
Valentine In Retrospect
While Valentine is billed as a novel, it is also a collection of short stories that when taken together create a masterful tale. The plot unfolds in Odessa, Texas. The year is 1976. The book opens in the aftermath of a brutal rape, with the latino victim, Glory, stumbling across the unforgiving Texas landscape, fleeing her abuser. She comes upon the home of another central character, Mary Rose, the young wife of a struggling cattle rancher. This raw and reeling encounter fiercely links the two strangers and creates a powerful backdrop for the remainder of the novel.
Valentine is told from the perspective of six alternating female characters, none of whom lead lives that are similar to mine. This is one of the things that I loved about the book. Wetmore grew up in Odessa so she knows of what she writes. Life for Odessa women in the 1970s, was rough. The landscape and climate were unforgiving, the petroleum-dependent, boom-or-bust economy was fragile, and misogyny and xenophobia ruled the day. When I met with friends on Zoom to discuss the book, some talked about the rage they felt from the persistent atmosphere of female subjugation.
In an interview with the publisher, Wetmore said that rage was indeed one of the emotions she was trying to provoke. However, I can’t say that this was my experience. Perhaps I long ago accepted the fact that life often sucks. Instead of anger, I felt both awe and admiration. I was awed by Wetmore’s writing. Every moment of the plot, even the dozens that I would never have anticipated, felt authentic. I admired the female characters because they each embodied a quality I find laudable—woman’s ability to cope and recover, even when a part of her has been damaged or destroyed.
Wetmore says her book asks readers to consider the following questions. What do you do if a stranger from another culture or community knocks on your front door? Are you able to see yourself in that person or do you turn your back? That theme is certainly front and center. However, in my mind, a line describing one of my least-liked characters exposes an important cornerstone. “A woman can spend her whole life proving everybody wrong.” The six protagonists of this sisterhood-centered novel span a variety of generations, backgrounds, and ethnicities. The one thing they each have in common is their need to push back against tenacious adversity before they can allow themselves to move on. Every woman I know has faced trials of this nature. Wetmore’s brilliance lies in her ability to make each of these six females relatable, such that if any one of them were to knock on your front door, after reading the book you’d let them in without a second’s hesitation.
Banned or Challenged Books
As happenstance would have it, this week is Banned Books Week, supported in part by the American Library Association (ALA). Banned Books Week brings together librarians, booksellers, publishers, teachers, and readers of all stripes to support the freedom to seek and express ideas, even those considered unorthodox or unpopular. Throughout the week, activities focus on efforts across the United States to remove or restrict access to books, drawing attention to the harms of censorship. Each year, the ALA compiles a list of challenged books as reported in the media and submitted by librarians and teachers across the country. Unsurprisingly, American Dirt landed on the 2019 list.
Although Valentine is written by a white woman who chose to portray the suffering and debasement of Latinos, the book seems to have evaded condemnation. Wetmore admits that her Latino characters were by far the hardest ones to create. She said she second-guessed herself constantly, interrogating every word. By the way, the book was 14 years in the making. Wetmore says that at least one reader asked her what gave her the right to take on a Latino protagonist. She answered with honesty saying “I don’t know and I don’t know if I got it right, but I did my best.” She pointed out that growing up in West Texas in the 1970s, girls were often told that “stories were not theirs to tell.” In the end, she—like Jeanine Cummins, the author of American Dirt—decided to push back and follow her own instincts. The result is an extraordinary look at the resiliency of women embattled by the hostile onslaught of innumerable Texan winds.Sunset Photo Credit Yinan Chen / Public Domain