Banned Book Week: Bless Me, Ultima

Monday, September 23, 2013

It’s banned book week (Sept. 22-28)! Every year I try to read at least one banned book during this month and this year I picked Bless Me, Ultima. I hope this week you take a minute to appreciate how lucky we are to have the freedom to choose what we read.  
Bless Me, Ultima
by Rudolfo A. Anaya

Antonio is a young Mexican American boy living with his family in New Mexico. At the beginning of the novel the local healer, Ultima, moves in with his family. Ultima was the midwife who helped bring Antonio into the world and he feels particularly close to her. He is the youngest child in his family and as he grows up under the watchful eyes of his parents and Ultima he must learn what it means to truly lose your innocence. Despite their love and protection he bears witness to strife and violence in the community.

The novel reminds me of many other American coming-of-age novels, especially Cold Sassy Tree. Bless Me, Ultima has a much more serious tone, but it shares many similarities of a young boy growing up in a tight-knit community. It consists of a string of connected events, more like a short story collection in some ways than a novel.

It is set in the 1940s following World War II and Antonio sees the effects of PTSD first hand. He witnesses multiple deaths throughout the book, but none of them are gratuitous. The book touches on many issues that adolescents struggle with, like the division between the life your parents want for you and the life you want. It looks at the role of the healer in Mexican culture, the question of religion and the way a community reacts to tragedy.

BOTTOM LINE: A coming-of-age gem and an important piece of Chicano literature.

“Understanding comes with life,” he answered, “as a man grows he sees life and death, he is happy and sad, he works, plays, meets people—sometimes it takes a lifetime to acquire understanding, because in the end understanding simply means having a sympathy for people.”

“I made strength from everything that had happened to me, so that in the end even the final tragedy could not defeat me. And that is what Ultima tried to teach me, that the tragic consequences of life can be overcome by the magical strength that resides in the human heart.”


Jeanne said...

So why has it been "banned" or challenged? It sounds non-controversial.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Jeanne - The reasons listed are: occult/satanism, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, and violence. The occult reason is because Ultima is a healer in their culture and some people in the village see her as a witch. There is definitely religious viewpoint and some violence, but the rest baffle me.

Anonymous said...

This book sounds non-controversial to me too, but that's part of the danger of book banning: just about everything offends someone! I wish our laws in the US were a bit better on the issue (the main case is over 30 years old, only a plurality opinion, and has been ignored by at least one circuit court).

Andi said...

This is one of those books I've had on my stacks for years! Great review!

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

misfortuneofknowing - That's exactly it! There's always something that someone could be offended by and banning a book means someone else might miss out on something that really speaks to them.

Andi - Enjoy it!

Captain Nick Sparrow said...

I loved this book and am so glad you read it for Banned Book Week. I read Beloved by Toni Morrison and thought it was great.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Captain Nick Sparrow - Beloved is one crazy book! It's been years since I read it though. I think that now that I understand the premise better it might be time for a reread.