Montserrat Fontes

"Dreams of the Centaur"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark JUN 26, 2000)

"Centaurs -- whose name etymologically signifies 'those who round up bulls' -- were a primitive population of cowmen, living in Thessaly, who, like American cowboys, rounded up their cattle on horseback. Their behaviour was rude and barbarous, whence the savagery which was always attributed to Centaurs -- gross creatures, cruel, and given to lechery and drunkenness."

Dreams of the Centaur
takes place at the turn of the 20th century, when Mexican President Porfirio Díaz was responsible for the deportation, enslavement, and slaughter of thousands of Yaquis Indians. Similar to Isabel Allende's The House of Spirits, the epic family story is integrated with the history and politics of the times. In this novel, the events of the Durcal family is told through the voices of Felipa and her oldest son Alejo Durcal.

Long ago, wealthy hacendados had claimed the best land, José Durcal took what was left and labored eight years "burning the tenacious chaparral, breaking the sunbaked land, digging wells and irrigation ditches, planting oranges, wheat, alfalfa and hay." At first he works alone, later he hires Yaquis to live on his land and work for him. When he travels to Alamos, he eyes Felipa at her Aunt's mill. When he asks her to marry him, she is surprised that such a successful man would ask her, but Tía Mercedes points out that since José has no family history it is natural that he should also choose to start "his family with someone as new as the land he had claimed." José continues to dream that someday his three sons will be known as respected land owners.

It is another seven years before José travels to Guaymas to purchase animals, tools and furniture, raising the stature of his ranch. Ironically, the biggest obstacle preventing José from his shopping trip is a Yaquis called Cajeme. Although, José applauds Cajeme's efforts to thwart the Mexican troops, he also knows that being Mexican, he is a target. When he finally sets off for Guaymas, he goes with his long time friend, the son of one of the wealthy mining families, Estaban Escobar.

They are gone six months and return with many wonders, but the center of attention is Estaban's two year old Black Stallion that he calls El Moro. Apparently, José is the one that found the horse, but being richer, Estaban outbids him. This strains the relationship to the point that José decides to win back El Moro in a poker game. After winning El Moro, José begins an ill conceived plan to quickly increase the size of his ranch by continuing to gamble, until one evening he goes too far and is killed on Estaban's land. Estaban claims it is an accident, José's sons believe, and all physical evidence points to murder, but the law sides with the wealthy family. Young, angry and out of family honor, Alejo, José's oldest son, now seeks revenge, despite Felipa's will to prevent this.

The heart of this story is about injustice and explores it from every possible angle, especially the ease in which one moves from a just position to the humiliator. At one point Alejo says, "My instinct tells me that if we can imagine a worse place, we'll make sure someone ends up there. That must be how those evil places get started. That's how Yaquis got chained--someone thought of a worse situation than his own, then he created it." How quickly the dreams of one becomes the nightmares of another as we realize that the centaurs in this novel are herding humans like bulls.

Though the message is as harsh as the history it portrays, the novel itself is a well paced, entrancing read. Fontes talent is to make the Durcal family as real as the lands that they occupy.

  • Amazon readers' rating: from 4 reviews


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About the Author:

Montserrat FontesMontserrat Fontes teaches advanced placement English and journalism at a High School near Los Angeles. With her first novel, she received praise as a major contributor to Chicana fiction. She has received numerous endowments and grants, including honors for two National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminars, a Carnegie-Mellon grant and a National Endowment for the Humanities independent study grant. She earned her B.A. in English from California State University, Long Beach in 1966 and then a year later, her Master's degree. Dreams of the Centaur won the 1997 American Book Best Novel Award.

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