Isabel Allende


(Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie JUN 12, 2005)

"Escalante's secret society was one of many in Europe during that time. It had been founded two hundred years earlier in reaction to the power of the Inquisition, the fearsome arm of the Church that since the sixteenth century had labored to defend the spiritual unity of Catholics by persecuting Jews, Lutherans, heretics, sodomites, blasphemers, sorcerers, seers, devil worshipers, warlocks and witches, astrologers, and alchemists, as well as anyone who read banned books. The wealth of the condemned passed into the hands of their accusers, so that many victims burned at the stake because they were wealthy, not for any other reason. For more than three hundred years of religious fervor, the people celebrated auto-da-fe, cruel orgies of public executions, but in the eighteenth century the strength of the Inquisition had begun to wane. The trials continued for a while, but behind closed doors, until the entire institution was abolished. The work of "La Justicia" had been to save the accused, smuggling them out of the country when possible and helping them to begin a new life elsewhere....During the period when Manuel Escalante recruited Diego, the orientation of La Justicia had changed; it combated not only religious fanaticism but other forms of oppression as well, such as that of the French in Spain and of slavery in foreign lands. La Justicia was a hierarchical organization with a military discipline in which women had no place. Each step of the initiation had its colors and symbols, the ceremonies were held in secret places, and the only way to be admitted was through another member who acted as sponsor. The participants swore to pledge their lives to the noble causes embraced by La Justicia, never to accept payment for their services, to keep their secret at any price, and to obey the orders of their superiors."

"Manuel Escalante had no difficulty convincing Diego de la Vega to stand as a candidate for membership in La Justicia. Mystery and adventure were irresistible temptations for Diego: his only uncertainty had to do with the clause about blind obedience, but after he was convinced that no one would order him to do anything against his principles, he overcame that stumbling block."

Historically, whenever and wherever oppression exists, the people who are subject to it look for a heroic figure to defend them and to punish their persecutors. Such a paladin was Robin Hood, another is the legendary Zorro. One of my favorite authors, Isabel Allende, has reached deep into her ample well of talent and brought forth a hero who is more human than demigod. She has breathed fresh life into the Zorro of myth, and gifted him with a heart, a soul, a good mind, an indomitable spirit and human fallibilities. This beautifully told tale of adventure and classical romance is chock-full of swashbuckling swordplay, ocean voyages, pirate attacks, Native American lore and rites, detailed fencing episodes, social injustice, secret underground societies, evil villains, duels at dawn, damsels in distress, unrequited love, gypsy camps, noble drawing rooms, drama, rollicking humor, vivid characters, tremendous energy...and so much more. The story's narrator is even a mystery person whose identity is not revealed until the conclusion. Ms. Allende's Zorro is a glorious literary adventure which will provide hours of entertainment for young and old alike.

Don Diego de la Vega was born in Alto, California at the end of the 18th century to a Spanish aristocrat, and the daughter of a Shoshone shaman and a Hispanic soldier turned deserter. Diego is raised alongside Bernardo, the son of his Indian wet nurse, and the two milk brothers remain inseparable throughout their lives. Although born into privilege, Diego becomes aware of social injustice at a very early age because of his mestizo blood and his bonds of friendship and brotherhood with Bernardo. European settlers continually perpetrate acts of violence against the Native American population and the two boys are helpless to come to the defense of their people.

The two receive a multi-faceted education. The Shoshone teach them how to hunt and fight like Indian braves. White Owl, the shaman and Diego's grandmother, instructs them in indigenous lore, sends them on individual quests for a vision and their totems, and brings them through the rites of manhood. After a fox saves Diego's life, the small animal, el zorro, becomes his emblematic animal. White Owl tells him, "Zorro is your totemic animal, your spiritual guide. . . You must cultivate its skill, its cleverness, its intelligence." Don Alejandro de la Vega gives his son lessons appropriate to a young Spanish grandee, including fencing, and instructs him about all things necessary to run their enormous rancho. Whatever Diego is taught, he passes on to Bernardo. The first part of the novel is about life and politics in California, Mexico, and Europe during the Napoleonic Wars, along with vignettes of the events and traumas which touch and effect the lives of the boys, and their families, as they move into adolescence.

Diego is sent to Barcelona to receive a noble's education, like that of his Spanish ancestors. Bernardo accompanies him, as a servant, even though he is no such thing. They stay with a close friend of de la Vega's, a Francophile, Tomas de Romeu, who has two daughters, the beautiful Juliana, and the spunky, younger, cross-eyed Isabel. The girls and their duena Nuria, are to play important roles in this tale. All of Spain is under Napoleon's control and the Spanish are rebelling. Guerilla fighters attack the French forces everywhere. Meanwhile, Diego enrolls in the School of Humanities, and is mentored by the famous fencing master, Maestro Manuel Escalante, who literally wrote the definitive manual on the art of swordplay. Escalante recruits Diego into the secret society, Justicia, whose members' are pledged, "To seek justice, nourish the hungry, clothe the naked, protect widows and orphans, give shelter to the stranger and never spill innocent blood." It is in Barcelona that the revolutionary character Zorro is born.

The novel's final chapters deal with the return of Diego, Bernardo, their traveling companions, and Zorro. And in Alto California, Zorro confronts his enemies at last, the homegrown kind and those who have pursued him from abroad.

As always, Isabel Allende's narrative is a delight to read. Her descriptive passages bring to life the local color, sounds and smells of Indian villages, the hacienda, the California countryside, Barcelona, gypsy camps, the sea, and a pirates' island. Her characters brim with life. Zorro: A Novel is better than the stuff of legend and a book I highly recommend for an adventure-packed read.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 162 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Zorro at

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"The House of Spirits"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark MAR 01, 1998)

The House of Spirits is a magnificent saga of the Trueba family. It begins at the turn of the century in a South American country with the child Clara del Valle, the future matriarch of the Trueba family. Mute for nine years after her sister, Rosa the Beautiful, mysteriously dies, Clara finally speaks to announce that she is getting married. Her husband-to-be is Estaban Trueba, a lonely, stern and willful man who was engaged to Rosa. Clara has willed him to her through her special telepathic powers.

And thus the saga begins depicting several generations of family, their relations and politics and with a touch of magic realism.  But underlying this spiritual quest is a very real account of Latin American politics weaving a strong tale of consequence of action. I admit that I hesitated a few times while reading the book. I liked it but, since it was compared to One Hundred Years of Solitude, I was a little disappointed at first. Somewhere along the way, I stopped the comparisons and by the time I got to the end I saw the full strength and was ready to begin the novel all over again.  It really is a tremendous political novel. The fact that Allende is the niece of Chile's assassinated President Salvador Allende lends that much more creditability to this novel. 

  • Amazon readers' rating: from 344 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The House of Spirits at author's website

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About the Author:

Isabel AllendeIsabelle Allende was born in Peru and raised in Chile. When in 1973, President Salvador Allende, her uncle, was assassinated in a military coup, she was forced to flee from Chile.  She moved to Caracas, Venezuela where she found work as a feminist journalist.  It was in 1980, at the news of her one-hundred year old grandfather's impending death, that she began to write, beginning with a letter to him which she knew he would never receive. This letter became the international best seller The House of Spirits

Allende currently lives in California. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014