Sandra Benítez


"Night of the Radishes"

(reviewed by Kam Aures FEB 22, 2004)

Annie Rush's mother is on her deathbed, dying from emphysema. Before she passes away she has Annie pull down an old cigar box from the closet that once belonged to Annie's older brother Hub. "I slip off the band and lift up the lid. Just as I remember, scrawled in black oil pencil on the inside lid are the words 'I yam what I yam,' then 'Hubert Henry Hart, born 1962.' There is a drawing of a bent arm with a bulging muscle." Her brother Hub left their Minnesota home twenty years earlier and as far as Annie knew no one had heard from him since. However, what her mother wanted her to see were postcards that Hub had sent every couple of years; the only words on them were, "I yam what I yam." The most recent card was sent two years ago from San Diego California. Annie's mother's dying wish is for Annie to find Hub.

After her mother's death Annie finds a diary-like notebook that her mother wrote. Inserted throughout the novel are pieces of these writings through which we learn more and more about Annie's family's past. From the outside Annie appears to have the perfect life. She has a loving husband named Sam and two wonderful sons. However, Annie's life has been filled with tragedy and turmoil. Her twin sister Maggie died when they were kids in a tractor accident. Shortly after, her father committed suicide. Then a few years later Hub left home never to be seen again.

Annie has her mother's mail forwarded to her own house. One day a postcard arrives from Oaxaca, Mexico with the words, "I yam what I yam." With this Annie decides to take a trip to Oaxaca in search of her lost brother. While there she meets Joe, a college professor who is staying at the same inn as she. Joe is very helpful and understanding and Annie feels herself drawn to him perhaps a little too much. In Oaxaca, Annie is forced to come to terms with her past, both spiritually as well as factually.

Throughout Night of Radishes there are many historical and cultural references, which I found very interesting and added a lot more depth to the novel. For instance, the novel is set around Christmas time, which in Oaxaca is the time when they celebrate Night of the Radishes. On December 23rd there is a radish-carving contest for which ten thousand pesos is the top prize. There are also other festivities described. In the acknowledgements section of the book we learn that Benitez actually spent time in Oaxaca working on this book and her permanent residence is in Minnesota. Her knowledge and research of both locations really shows in her writing.

Night of Radishes is an easy read. The book flows seamlessly from the first page to the last. However, there were times that I found the novel to be too improbable and predictable; there are some instances in the middle of the novel where there are just too many coincidences. But even though I could predict what was going to happen in these instances, I was still eager to keep reading to see it happen. Toward the end, the novel regained the element of surprise and suspense and finished off strong. I found the plot to be very intriguing and the book definitely held my interest.
  • Amazon readers rating: from 6 reviews
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"The Weight of All Things"

(reviewed by Judi Clark MAR 06, 2001)

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This is one powerful story. Set in El Salvador in 1980, it chronicles six weeks of a nine-year-old boy's life as he searches for his mother in a country controlled by two warring factions. The story begins with one true life massacre and ends with another. By telling the story through the boy, Sandra Benítez skips the politics and goes to the heart of the problem: in war there are no winners, only citizens caught in the middle.

On March 30, 1980, more than 80,000 people gathered in and around the metropolitan cathedral in San Salvador for the funeral of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero after his assassination a week earlier. Explosions and shooting cause the people in the crowded plaza to panic resulting in thirty-five dead and 450 wounded.

It was on this day that nine year old Nicolás de la Virgen Veras loses his mother. Initially, he really does believe that he has lost her; that they are just temporarily separated. During the melée, his mother throws herself over the boy to protect him from stray bullets. Unbeknownst to the boy, a bullet enters her skull and although he feels her dead weight, he doesn't understand it. When the medics lift his mother from him, he tells them she's fainted and follows them as they carry her listless body to the cathedral. He stops to recover her single remaining shoe as it slipped from her foot and he sees them carry her into the church. Though barred from entering, he finds an unguarded entrance and makes his way in. He still can not find her. He sets off for the hospital, wherever that is, since this must be where his mother is; hospitals are where they bring the wounded, although he doesn't remember any blood. But this plan dissolves when he realizes that San Salvador has many hospitals.

This sole boy is not even from the city of San Salvador. He lives with his grandfather in Chalate, in the Northwest part of El Salvador near Honduras. His mother lives in San Salvador so that she can work for the family of Don Enrique. Lety Veras felt it important for Nicolás to be able to state later in his life "When I was nine I attended the funeral of a martyred saint." Thus she brought him by bus from Chalatenango to San Salvador, a journey over guerrilla-held land. The obvious irony in the mother's purpose need not be stated.

With the help of his "second mother" la Virgen Milagrosa, Nicolás decides the best thing to do is get on the bus for home, retrieve the letter his mother sent him from her employer and then return to look her up since this must be where she is.

But nothing in his young life is ever going to the same again including going back to his beloved rancho. La capitán Dolóres and her band of guerillas need a hide out while they care for their wounded. They commandeer the grandfather's property for a temporary base. For the next three weeks, Nicolás and Don Tino Veras (Tata) are forced to work for the guerillas, although for the boy this is not as bad since he gets his first experience as a doctor's assistance. Just as abruptly as it starts, it ends. Dolóres is told that the army is about to do a clean sweep of the area. They quickly pack and flee, but don't get far before they are slaughtered. Nicolás and his "Tata" hideout, but the boy is still caught by the army who forces him to enlist "to show a different example."

Nicolás, like his namesake, is guided by la Virgen. He rescues a statue of the Virgin from a burnt out church and takes care of her the way his mother taught him. She talks to him and shows him how to help himself, how to find his inner strength and courage. How else can one explain how a young boy gets through the lunacy of war, except as a miracle? For if nothing else, The Weight of All Things brings out the selfishness of adults when they have an agenda. The guerillas seek refuge among the people, yet execute any who refuse to help them; the Guardia pursue the guerrillas and eradicate sympathizers whether real or imagined. When life should be greater than any political agenda, this is insanity.

The Weight of All Things is a beautifully written novel with a vividness and sensory perception that brings to light El Salvador's civil war years like no headline or history book ever could.

Amazon readers' rating: from 17 reviews


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About the Author:

Sandra BenitezSandra Benítez, who is of Puerto Rican and Midwestern descent, was born in 1941 and grew up in Mexico, El Salvador, and Missouri. She worked as a teacher and translator for many years before turning, at the age of thirty-nine, to writing fiction. Her first novel, A Place Where the Sea Remembers (1993), is set in the Mexican village of Santiago. It received both the Barnes & Noble Discover Award and the Minnesota Book Award. Her second novel, Bitter Grounds (1997), spans five decades of life in El Salvador and earned its author a 1998 American Book Award. She was a past University of Minnesota Keller-Eisenstein Distinguished Writer in Residence and won a Bush foundation Fellowship in fiction.

She lives in Edina, Minnesota.

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