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Summer Books

Novel weaves mundane with macabre in Guatemala

By Patricia Henley
MacMurray & Beck, 1999, $22 hardcover


Kate Banner, a 40-something American, has spent years working as a midwife in Nicaragua, and as Hummingbird House opens she is adrift. Her mental state -- fear, melancholy, confusion -- is exemplified in a dreamlike encounter she has in the abandoned Nicaraguan National Cathedral. An old man cackles at her, “Brigadista ... you do not belong here ... Go home, brigadista, go home.”

Kate struggles with her future, in a twilight state, waiting to return to the United States but always held back. This compelling book tells the story of her discovery of where she truly needs to be, where she belongs.

When a young woman dies in childbirth in the aftermath of a hurricane, Kate decides that it is time for her to return to her native country. Her childhood friend Maggie, who has been with Kate in the years of working in war-torn Nicaragua, says she will join her, but Kate’s lover, Mark Deaver, will not. The end of that relationship increases Kate’s melancholy, and she leaves ahead of Maggie. She will meet Maggie in Antigua, Guatemala, where Kate will stop and visit her old friends Sunny and Ben.

When Kate arrives in Antigua, Sunny and Ben aren’t at their house -- haven’t been for months -- but an array of distinctive folks are: Fr. Dixie Ryan, an American priest questioning his vocation; Ginger, an American student; Lino, a Guatemalan teenager; and a parrot named Posh.

The house becomes the book’s spiritual center, sheltering the extended family that coalesces in the story. Lino brings home two street children, Eduardo and Marta. The household members join in the vigil of Vidalúz, a Mayan woman whose husband, Hector, has been disappeared. Dixie’s sister Jude, herself a nun, wants her brother to return to the priesthood and fears Kate may be tempting him away.

Meanwhile, Kate waits to go home to the United States. She waits and waits and waits -- for Maggie to arrive, to see the ever-elusive Sunny and Ben, to receive money from home. She also pines for Deaver, until more deadly concerns press upon her mind and a terrible tragedy shatters her hopes that everything will be OK once Maggie arrives.

Hummingbird House is a terrific read on many levels. The large cast of characters are vividly drawn, and their struggles are compelling. Author Patricia Henley convincingly blends the ordinary -- the smell of tortillas, the sound of jazz, children playing, Posh’s fear of rainstorms -- with the brutality of Guatemala in the late 1980s. The mundane startles the reader with the realization that life carries on with some semblance of normality, even with violence and fear around every corner.

The story’s weakest link is Kate herself. She is essentially a reactive character. The stories of fascinating people are happening all around her -- stories in which she takes a secondary role, when she is not hiding inside her own pain. Especially in the first half, while I was completely wrapped up in the narrative, I was often weary of Kate’s moping over Deaver -- a man portrayed as unkind, and their relationship primarily a physical one. The book’s later tragedy, which I will not give away, is at least of sufficient magnitude to warrant Kate’s grief and extreme withdrawal from those around her.

The love that blossoms between Kate and Dixie and the motherly relationship Kate develops toward Marta finally bring Kate some peace with herself. If Dixie seems almost too good to be true, the book at least acknowledges that. “You always try to do the right thing, don’t you?” Kate asks and tells him, “I’m not pure like you.”

It’s in her care and sheltering of Marta that Kate’s character comes most alive. In an early, touching scene, Kate bathes Marta. The little girl is covered with dirt and sores and she smells like the glue she and her brother sniff. “Kate thought of Mayan women she had seen posing for tourists. They would insist that the photographer wait while they combed out their long and shining indigo hair. She whispered, ‘Your hair is very pretty. We can wash it and make it smell good.’ ”

The gentle bath ends with Kate kneeling before Marta, who sits on the toilet as Kate trims her toenails and rubs lotion into her street-worn feet, an image evocative of Christ washing the disciples’ feet.

Scenes such as these make whatever flaws the book may have seem minor. It is not always easy to share the tragic lives of the characters, but Henley makes the experience rewarding and brings the reader to share in the strong peace that Kate finds by the story’s end.

Teresa Malcolm is NCR’s assistant news editor and a staff writer. Her E-mail address is tmalcolm@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, May 7, 1999