Summary (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
In the epigraph to American Chica: Two Worlds, One Childhood, the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda is quoted as saying that he has “half my soul at sea and half my soul on land.” The passage continues, “With these two halves of soul, I see the world.” These lines not only state the subject of Marie Arana’s memoir but also suggest her purpose in writing the book. American Chica is about divisions and connections, both external and internal. It is also about the author’s pilgrimage into the past, undertaken when, as a middle-aged adult, she realized that she must come to terms with her own divided soul.
American Chica begins in Peru. Before dawn, four-year-old Marie Arana is awakened by shouts and laughter; from her window, she can see her beautiful, blonde, American mother and her handsome, dark-haired Peruvian father, who have just arrived with their friends. Her parents are young, happy, and deeply in love. Oddly, Arana has no recollection of a much more dramatic event that had taken place just three days before, an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale. However, she soon senses that, as she puts it, like Peru itself, “my parents’ marriage was shot through with fissures.” In her prologue, Arana thus poses one of the questions with which her search began: Were her parents ever able to resolve their cultural differences, and if so, how?
Even though American Chica begins with what was evidently one of the author’s earliest memories, the book does not proceed chronologically. The prologue ends with a present-day episode, and the ten chapters that follow move back and forth through time, as their topical headings dictate. Even the epilogue is not so much a conclusion to the story as a presentation of what the author has concluded. Although some of Arana’s more compulsive readers may find themselves driven to create their own chronology, it is hard to fault the author for choosing this method of organization, for it reflects her own attitude toward history: that it is not linear but circular, that every moment in the present draws upon, repeats, and recombines elements from the past.
Arana emphasizes the presence of the past in the first chapter of American Chica, appropriately entitled “Ghosts.” All people are haunted by fragrances, she believes. For her, it is the smell of sugar, specifically, the brown sugar that was produced in Cartavio, a company town in the sugarcane fields of Peru, where her father, Jorge Enrique Arana, or “Papi,” was the engineer in charge during Arana’s early years.
In Cartavio, Arana first became aware of the existence of ghosts. When a worker was injured, everyone knew that a ghost was responsible; everyone, that is, except Arana’s mother, Marie Elverine Clapp Campbell Arana. During her childhood in rural Wyoming, Marie Clapp had absorbed the values of the Western frontier. She was committed not to the past, but to the future. Therefore, she sees the Peruvians’ obsession with history, tradition, and convention, like their belief in ghosts, not only as foolish but also, more seriously, as an impediment to personal independence and to social progress. These feelings undoubtedly account for Marie Clapp Arana’s steely refusal to speak about her own past, even to her young daughter. It is only in adulthood that Arana begins to put her fragmentary memories into a factual context and thus to clear up some of the mysteries that pervaded her childhood years, including such questions as who her parents really were, why they were married, and, most puzzling of all, why they remained together.
When the family is called to the deathbed of her maternal grandmother, for example, Arana discovers that the surname of her maternal grandparents is not Campbell, the name her mother had always used, but Clapp. Later she finds out more interesting facts about her mother. Marie had been married three times before she met Jorge; Campbell was the surname of her third husband, who had died in World War II. Jorge learned about Marie’s past history only when the two were filling out the papers for their own marriage. The fact that a man from so conventional a society was still willing to proceed with so unconventional a union seems highly significant to Arana. Obviously, Jorge was very much in love with Marie. However, their cultural...
(The entire section is 1784 words.)
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