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Book Review


Bridal, Tessa. The Tree of Red Stars (Milkweed Editions, 1997). 287 pp, $13.95.


It comes back to what Che was always saying about individual responsibility. We may lose. We may be tortured. We may die. But there are some of us who cannot rest while injustice is being done to anyone, anywhere. And once we know ourselves to be one of that number, then we give up living according to any rules society can recognize. (229)

     Tessa Bridal's personal experiences as a girl growing up in Uruguay and Brazil must have played an important role in her decision to write this novel. In addition to her Latin American roots, the fact that she has lived in London as well as the United States has given the opportunity to interact with different cultures and worldviews, all of which play an important role in her historical fiction novel, The Tree of Red Stars. 2
     In this extensively researched novel, Magdalena, a young teenager, narrates her fascination with Che Guevara's speeches as well as her passionate, tragic, and frighteningly realistic involvement in the struggle for stability and control in 1960s Uruguay. As the book unfolds, the many factors that made modern Latin America so turbulent reveal a history of confusion and frustration rooted in European colonialism. 3
     Cultural identity and the remains of Western European hierarchy are inherent in the characters, who profess their superiority through their European ancestry. At the very heart of the story is the Uruguayan way of life, stunningly described through Magdalena's eyes as she attends quinci–eras and bodas, reflects upon her mother's insistence on proper behavior, and visits her family's property in the country, a remnant of the encomienda system. The desire to maintain the criollo ways of life are juxtaposed by the movement toward autonomy and freedom from the grip of Western European pre-eminence. As the story delves into Uruguay's most recent history, the reader is left to ponder the effects that European settlement had on Latin America. 4
     The Tree of Red Stars is a captivating novel with fictionalized, but deeply believable personal accounts reflecting the participants in South America's struggle for stability and peace. While the focus is mainly the relationships between Uruguay, Brazil, and England, the novel also addresses the roles played by the United States and Western Europe. In addition, the novel compares Uruguay's struggles with those of other Latin American countries by introducing leaders such as Che Guevara and Salvador Allende. 5
      In examining the definition of freedom and its implications, the Cold War becomes a central theme as the characters ponder the practicality of socialism as a means of combating Western control. The global balance inherent in the relationship between the United States and Russia during the Cold War is brought into question by the younger characters in the novel as they wonder if there is more to the story than simply being on one side or the other. 6
     Historical fiction—and its effectiveness at illustrating historical themes on a personal level—can be a refreshing change to the standard curriculum of social studies classrooms. Bridal's novel would certainly enrich a world history classroom on the high school or collegiate level during units addressing cross-cultural interactions, the role of the Catholic Church in modern history, the Rise of the West, Liberation Theology, and the effects of the Cold War. In addition, Bridal's novel is a powerful tale for classrooms addressing Latin American Studies, Women's Studies, and Hispanic Literature. 7
     To see history as a story and not simply a series of impersonal events is often a powerful experience for students. The Tree of Red Stars certainly deals with mature subject matter and would be suitable for high school students at the teacher's discretion. It also serves as a powerful book for collegiate level classes. Bridal's novel is smoothly written and she avoids complex and affected wording, providing a compelling tale that can be read easily by anyone with a ninth grade reading level or above. The novel introduces a number of characters ranging in age, gender, personality, and cultural identity, allowing readers to connect with the family ties and friendships, encouraging an intimate involvement on the part of the reader. 8
     As a means of enhancing textbook readings and primary sources dealing with Latin America in the mid to late twentieth century, Bridal's book is certainly worthwhile. The novel lends itself beautifully to an interdisciplinary lesson between English and Social Studies departments since the book is a fine example of literature as well as a wonderful piece of historical fiction. Discussion questions that ask students to determine which side they would support if they were characters in the novel would be an effective means of helping students to identify with historical events, while encouraging self-examination of their own worldviews. Another assignment might have students engaging in a mock trial of one of the characters to determine his or her fate. In a follow-up discussion students might compare the outcome of the mock trial with that of the trial in the reading, including a discussion of systems of justice and the concept of a fair trial. An essay that asks the students to determine whether the book is a realistic account or a romanticized account would also be a helpful critical thinking assignment, which would encourage the students to utilize various sources to interpret the validity of the novel. 9
Lauren LoAlbo
Thornton-Donovan School

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