How do I begin writing a review for this book? I guess I’ll start with a story of how I came to read “Bless Me Ultima” and why I ended up reading it again in recent considerations (2013).
I read “Bless Me Ultima” for the first time in my AP Literature and Composition class. My teacher at the time had a list of books we could choose to do reports on and this was one of the choices that jumped out at me. It also surprised me that it was banned from many curriculum in different schools and districts (wasn’t banned in my area, but it surprised me to know that this was banned in certain parts of my state at the time. I think the ban has been lifted since for those areas, but I’m not entirely sure.)
In any case, “Bless Me Ultima” really impressed me when I read it as a high school senior, and I wrote about it on my AP exam too (and did pretty well for my efforts).
I re-read “Bless Me Ultima” this year as kind of a way to get me out of a prolonged reading slump and also in honor of Banned Books week. I figure some of you have perhaps heard about the whole Goodreads censorship debacle that happened around that. I’m not going to go into too much detail with my sentiments or a recap of that, but I am going to say a few things about censorship, bullying, the experience of pain, and having to come to terms with difficult, contentious situations.
Having the platform to speak openly and honestly allows us to see the differences in the spheres of thought, ideals, and perceptions that we have in this life, no matter where it may originate. We may not always agree on things, but in getting different viewpoints on an issue of contention, even when the nature of that discussion may be controversial, it gives us a different lens to look through and level of understanding why a person’s ideals may be the way they are, or even from where those ideals originate. Censorship is the worst measure for contributing to learning, understanding, and the promotion of ideals. It is the worst measure acting against enlightenment and coming to terms. Sometimes, talking about something of controversy, especially when it comes against long held, strongly held ideals can hurt – and it often does – but being able to transcend that hurt, learn and understand things for what they are, and being able to move forward with that education brings new light and life to the person who bears witness to or is a part of it. I don’t know if that makes sense, but that’s the best way I can phrase it at this time.
If we’re discussing the Goodreads controversy – so much of those contentions come from the misconceptions people have about bullying, about the nature of offense and what it means to be hurt by something, about what it means to give criticism and the nature of those criticisms, about professionalism and about the nature of the writing industry as a whole and what situations can be avoided versus those that are unavoidable. I’m frequently frustrated at what people call bullying in the writing industry, because by some erroneous definitions – saying things that may hurt or things that are termed as “mean” – with no distinctions on what or the severity of “mean” entails – is bullying. And I have to step up to the plate and say that’s false, because as someone who used to be berated on aspects of my person such as my weight, my skin color, my height, my demeanor, among other things, for a prolonged period of time from people who didn’t understand me and didn’t want to understand me, who deliberately wanted to hurt and exert power over me over parts that they saw where I was weak or vulnerable…I beg to differ. I truly beg to differ.
There were times that I went to bed feeling so numb from the commentary (my experience was primarily verbal bullying) that I could not cry. The numbness was probably from a sea of conflicting emotions. It wasn’t just sadness, it was frustration, it was wanting to say so many things, it was knowing what I knew to be right/wrong and the nature of my own experience and person and wanting to tell the people who said those things where they were wrong and why, but they didn’t see that. They wouldn’t talk, they wouldn’t be open to talk, it was a power play, a domination. That the aspects of my person made me lesser, not of worth, that whatever I said, did, contributed, aimed for was meaningless.
It was bullying.
And even now, sometimes I ask myself how I survived any of that, and was still able to do the things that I wanted to do with my life back then. I would say it was a number of factors that aided me, even enlightened me, and I consider myself fortunate, though my experience doesn’t speak for what others may endure or have endured. But I will say that bullying is more than just feeling pain in a singular dimension, and we can’t afford reduce the term down to where it encompasses anyone who may act in a way we say is “mean” or is contentious. Bullying entails so much more than that.
That said, I don’t personally put one’s experiences of pain or hardship on a scale to rank or juxtapose against others, but rather I recognize the situations themselves, the origin, their impact on said person(s), and how to translate them. I had a professor in my undergrad uni, in my Gender, Health and Illness class that said something along the lines of “We may understand the clinical origins of one who suffers, and delineate terms in which to define it, but if we ignore the experiences of pain as voiced from the people who suffer within it and what factors may be exacerbating that pain, then we can never truly understand it.”
So it’s not that I lack understanding pain myself, or what it means to be hurt by something. Nor is it that I lack understanding that people have different degrees or experiences in that measure, but we have to know the difference – not just in the matter of enlightening others, but enlightening ourselves – in how to deal with it, and recognize where contention may be present and why. And that can’t be done by just hearing one dimension or part of a situation, or stifling dialogue that can help bring discrepancies or agents/matters of harm or contention to light.
So what does this have to do with “Bless Me Ultima”? (And you may at this point be saying “Go figure, Rose.”)
This is not a book for everyone. It’s a coming of age story told in a magical realism realm that gives a very heavy examination of religious bargaining and critique. If you are deeply religious, and especially if you are Catholic, this book might offend you.
I think some groups attempted to justify the banning of this particular book because of those critiques/contrasts of religion and the matters in which young Antonio/Tony has to come to terms with in this novel, alongside some of the mystical elements, but I honestly thought this was a wonderful story showing a boy who becomes more mature from the questions he asks, from the contradictions he sees in his life, the experiences he has, and ultimately what he learns from the wisdom of the wise, elder Ultima.
Tony is a young boy who sounds wiser than his years, but unlike many “special snowflake” characters that one may see in YA books, Tony has his share of vulnerabilities. Granted, he’s six years old when the narrative starts, but we watch him grow as he goes through school, goes to church, learns what is expected of him, but also learns of the hardships, prejudices, and experiences he faces head on. His curiosity to understand the life and the actions of people around him is both a blessing and a curse. He meets Ultima when she comes to live with his family. He thinks that he knows what his route in life will be and casts judgments against those he knows deviate from what he believes is a clear line of right and wrong. But at the same time, when events transpire beyond his control, when questions he has are left unanswered from the sources that are supposed to give him understanding – whether it’s his family, his friends, his faith, among other things – he starts to question and his questions have due weight in the root of his experiences and relationships.
I’m not going to say that Anaya’s narrative does this perfectly, especially with some overt pushes of ideology that don’t settle well along the way, but I would say it does a very good job of getting into Antonio/Tony’s experiences. I would also say that when the rolling action/conflict comes into play when it comes to matters that put him and the people he loves in danger, especially in the root of assumptions and prejudices, it is a very well developed story. I’ll admit the ending still makes me misty-eyed for what occurs, but I understood that this was the point where Antonio/Tony realizes he’s changed/grown, and there are layers of depth in thinking back through every experience and relationship he’s had, even as he debates his faith and will in consideration of what occurs to him and around him. That I think makes this narrative worth reading, and even taking a step back from to consider the way we each view the world and what we know versus the things in life that never go the way we expect them to.
In any case, again, I know other people may not care for this narrative and I would say it has some flaws in turns of presentation, but I did very much enjoy this story for what it offered, and include it among my favorite stories. I give it an extra half-star for Robert Ramirez’s well-presented narration of it in the audio version.
Overall score: 4.5/5 stars