I was drawn to Stones for Ibarra by a Wikipedia comparison to One Hundred Years of Solitude1 and a mention of magical realism. As I read it I had some of the same reactions as when I read Lilac Girls, which I’ll explain shortly.
Stones is the story of Sara and Richard Delton and their experience in moving from California to Ibarra, a small village in Mexico, to reopen Richard’s grandfather’s abandoned copper mine. Nearly every chapter is a glimpse into one facet of the lives of the villagers – the poor, the pious, and the slightly criminal. The stories are told in the second person, and at first it seems that Richard and Sara share the narrative voice. Soon though, it’s clear that we are inside Sara’s head, and the last few chapters are less about the village and more about their marriage.
Doerr’s prose is spare; if the book were a painting it would be drawn with vivid colors, a landscape populated with simply depicted people and animals. The viewer would have a clear understanding of the lives being illustrated and of the natural world surrounding them.
What puzzled me was why the Deltons even have a place in the painting. They definitely have their own story line, and a sad one it is – but it’s awkwardly juxtaposed with village life until the last couple of chapters. This is where the similarity to Lilac Girls comes in – why the extra characters and the awkwardness?
As with Lilac, I did not research Stones before I read the book. I suspected the reason for the presence of the Deltons though – and I was right. Harriet Doerr and her husband Albert did, in fact, move from San Francisco to Mexico to run Albert’s family mine, and their story ended much as the Deltons’ did. As with Lilac, this is based on actual events.
I’m not certain how strictly autobiographical this is – did Luis, Ignacio, and Paz really exist? Did Lourdes the housekeeper really hide charms around the house to keep the Deltons healthy and the mine prosperous? We don’t know, and I don’t want to know. I want to believe that other than the basic premise, this is fiction. I like make-believe.
Stones for Ibarra was published in 1984 – a little young for a classic, but it reads like a classic and it won a National Book Award for First Work of Fiction. Harriet Doerr went on to write another novel and a collection of short stories and essays. You can read about her HERE. The book was the basis for a movie made for TV in 1988 starring Glenn Close and Keith Carradine.
With its simple language, this book is easy to skim. Guard against that. I recommend reading with iced tea or lemonade at hand, and maybe some almond cookies. I read the eBook and that worked out fine.
1One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is an epic novel set in Colombia. It is filled with magic and humor – a story to sink one’s teeth into. It was published in Spanish in 1967 and in English in 1970. If you read this I recommend a physical paper copy that you can mark up if you want. You can do the same with an eBook but this book – you need to feel the weight of it.