Among the Volcanoes is a coming-of-age story written for young adults and set in a place far removed from the environments familiar to American readers. Castañeda was able to write the novel in part due to funding from a Fulbright Fellowship for research in Central America that allowed him to study more closely the culture and people of his heritage. Published in 1991 in the United States, the novel is intended for readers between the ages of twelve and eighteen. It is set in the author's native Guatemala and tells the story of a teenager, Isabel Pacay, who experiences the same feelings and uncertainties as any adolescent, but in a very difficult place and time. The political climate is hostile and very dangerous, her mother is afflicted with a debilitating illness, she must stop attending school in order to care for her family, and she is having problems with her fiancé. To make matters worse, Isabel does not always think like the other members of her community. They are very tradition-minded, while she has dreams of taking a different path with her life than the one she is expected to follow.
Although critical response was scant, those who reviewed the novel praised it for its compelling and realistic portrayal of Mayan culture in Guatemala. At the same time, critics felt that the universal themes would appeal to Castañeda's young audience. The book addresses betrayal, love, the difficulties of making decisions as teenagers approach adulthood, the discomfort of not quite fitting in with the rest of the community, discovering one's identity, and the nature of family relationships. The story is about Isabel's responsibility, not just to her family and her fiancé, but ultimately to herself.
Chapters One through Five
Isabel Pacay, the oldest of four children, is a teenage girl taking care of the family because her mother, Manuela, is very ill. She realizes that "by being the first, she was now the last,’’ because she must now put everyone else's needs before her own. One morning her father leaves without breakfast, and Isabel follows him under the guise of going to get the water. She watches him as he sacrifices a chicken to both the native and Christian gods, while praying specifically for Isabel. She returns home and prepares breakfast. After the younger children leave for school, Isabel's mother goes to the altar and performs the healing rituals as instructed by Eziquel Coxol, the town healer. Isabel worries that her mother will never get better, and that she will be forever stuck as the woman of the house. Her dream is to become a teacher, and even though she knows it seems impossible, she is unwilling to give up hope.
When Manuela has another attack, Isabel heads into town to find Eziquel. There she finds many of the villagers gathered around an American imploring the mayor to allow him to do his medical work in their village. Because of the hostile political climate, however, the natives are suspicious of strangers. Isabel, who loves learning, is intrigued by this man who has come from so far away. As the crowd breaks up, Isabel sees her fiancé, Lucas. He is distant and cold to her, leaving her confused as she goes to find Eziquel. Isabel returns home with the healer, and for the first time, Manuela admits how sick she is. When Isabel's father, Alfredo, comes home, the family talks about the strange American. After dinner, Alfredo drinks his rum and tells stories to the children.
The next day, Isabel talks to her best friend, Teresa, about Lucas' strange behavior. Teresa and Lucas were engaged; he broke off the engagement because he was in love with Isabel. Isabel marvels at how Teresa is able to remain friends with her. Teresa agrees to talk to Lucas about his aloof manner.
Chapters Six through Ten
The American approaches Isabel. Nobody will talk to him, and he hopes Isabel will be different. She learns that his name is Allan Waters and that he is a medical student working on an illustrated book of symptoms that will allow patients to communicate with doctors who do not speak their languages. Isabel talks to him briefly, until Manuela calls her away.
On her way into town, Isabel encounters Lucas, and their exchange is cold and formal. When Isabel returns home, she finds many of the women in the village talking to Manuela about Isabel's indiscretion in talking to the American. That night, Alfredo warns her about the dangers of trusting strangers and about the importance of resisting change. Isabel disagrees. Their discussion is interrupted by the sound of a rock hitting the house. When they investigate, they find a red candle in a circle of pine with a burnt tuft of hair. It is a...
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