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Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr

Reviewed by Allan Cogan

This is a novel about a couple of Americans who choose to leave San Francisco and live in a small, remote Mexican village. They are Richard and Sara Everton. Their purpose is to reopen a copper mine that was abandoned by Richard's grandfather fifty years ago in the Revolution of 1910.

The novel, then, depicts their arrival and their integration into Ibarra. Richard knows nothing about mining or the steps involved in processing ore or even very much about machinery. Neither, for that matter, does the author. So it is very much a tale about a couple of neophytes making their way through a new and strange environment - a couple of strangers in a strange land.

As Ms Doerr puts it: "Five days ago the Evertons left San Francisco and their house with a narrow view of the bay to extend the family's Mexican history and patch the present on to the past. To find out if there was still copper underground and how much the rest of it was true, the width of the sky, the depth of the stars, the air like new wine, the harsh noons and long, slow dusks."

Curiously, author Harriet Doerr also lets us in on a secret literally on the first page - namely that Richard hasn't got long to live. It is mentioned frequently throughout the narrative, too - not as speculation or as a plot possibility, but as something you can definitely count on happening before you reach page 214. On page 9, for instance, she tells us he's only going to live six years and will die in the month of July. His affliction, by the way, is a malignancy of the blood which eventually gets properly labelled as leukemia.

There's even a description of Richard's death on page 195, but it's strangely out of context with the story. It actually is mentioned in the account of Sara's taxi ride to find a doctor in Concepción who will come and treat her "dying" husband who, as we later discover, still has another year to live.

This is really a novel about two sets of strangers - the Evertons and the people of Ibarra -learning about each other and eventually coming to understand one another a little better.

The townsfolk observe the Evertons with great curiosity and marvel, for example, at what it must cost to run their household and feed themselves with all the canned food they eat. And we're told about other misunderstandings where Richard pays medical expenses for his workers but won't pay for brujos, witch doctors.

We never learn Ms Doerr's credentials for producing this novel. In her brief biography Mexico is never mentioned. In fact, no specific state in Mexico is ever mentioned as being Ibarra's location. A state capital of Concepción is mentioned, but it's not in any of my guidebooks.

After Richard's death Sara mourns and weeps and the whole tone of the story becomes over-sentimental and rather annoying. Sara moves away from Ibarra but we never really learn what happened to the mine.

In fact we hardly ever hear anything about the mine throughout the entire book. There are a few brief mentions. For example, we learn after a while that it employs forty-five men and, later on, that it is making a profit.

For this reader, the characters were unconvincing. You never really know why the Evertons want to go to Ibarra in the first place. None of the characters have any real depth. You never really know whether or not they even feel their move to Mexico was worth it. Nor do you discover if the two cultures ever learned anything useful about each other.

Verdict: Sentimental and quite lacking in conviction and authenticity.

Stones for Ibarra
By Harriet Doerr

Penguin paperback, 1985

Available from Amazon Books: Paperback



Published or Updated on: February 15, 2003 by Allan Cogan © 2008
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