The Great American Read is an eight-part television series celebrating and discussing America’s top 100 novels as chosen by a survey of approximately 7,200 people. Americans can vote on their favorite book once a day until the winner is revealed on October 23. Here at Pages Unbound, we’ll be joining the fun by reading, reviewing, and discussing some of the nominees!
Goodreads: Bless Me, Ultima
One of the most celebrated books in the Chicano literary canon, Bless Me, Ultima follows Antonio as he grows up on the edge of the llano. Torn between his mother’s love for the earth and his father’s love of freedom, his belief in the Catholic church and the miracles he has seen performed by Ultima the curandera, Antonio struggles to find his place in the world.
“The smallest bit of good can stand against all the powers of evil in the world and it will emerge triumphant.”
Bless Me, Ultima feels more like an experience than a story. The rich words of the text wash over readers with the seeming wisdom of the llano or the river. Antonia may be confused about his beliefs, desperate to know which religion to accept and which career to follow. But the words, soft and reassuring, always bring comfort.
Readers accustomed to the plot-driven stories of YA may initially find themselves adrift. Bless Me, Ultima has no clear goal it is aiming for, nor does the story ever really feel conclusive. It is, after all, merely some chapters in the life of a boy growing up, perhaps too soon, into a man. And life seldom has conclusions. We simply hear what life is like for Tony, torn between his parents’ dreams, desperate to know the real God, wondering why there is so much darkness in the world. Tony has questions that he cannot answer, not for himself and certainly not for the readers.
Though some have found the content of the book offensive, Bless Me, Ultima is not designed to promote one view over another. Its importance lies in its willingness to depict Antonio as someone who has doubts and as someone who is struggling to find good in the world when he has witnessed so much violence and deception. This does not mean that the book or the author is insulting Catholicism or glorying in graphic content. It simply means that Antonio is a person. And, like many people, he is uncertain. Sometimes he feels God has failed him. Sometimes he wants a god who is more immediate and more conversational. And sometimes he just wants to cry because everything seems so bleak. If depicting something so realistic is offensive, we are all in trouble.
Bless Me, Ultima is undoubtedly worth a read for its honest, probing look at one boy’s coming-of-age story. Though some may find it slow-paced, that it is part of its magic. The prose sinks deep into the reader, inviting them to journey with Antonio through his childhood to the edge of adulthood. It is a journey worth taking.
About the Author
Born in 1937 in New Mexico, Rudolfo Anaya has published over 40 books, including Bless Me, Ultima, which has become one of the leading books in the Chicano literary canon. He worked as a high school English teacher and later taught at the University of New Mexico until he retired in 1993.
- “Rudolfo A. Anaya.” The University of New Mexico. https://english.unm.edu/about-us/people/emeriti/anaya-rudolfo.html.
- “Rudolfo Anaya.” National Endowment for the Humanities. https://www.neh.gov/about/awards/national-humanities-medals/rudolfo-anaya.
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