Harriet Doerr Essay - Harriet Doerr Long Fiction Analysis

Harriet Huntington

Harriet Doerr Long Fiction Analysis

Harriet Doerr’s novels share a common episodic structure and a Mexican setting, and they have similar characters and related themes. Both novels are written in a thoroughly crafted prose in which each sentence is pared down and polished until only the essential innermost gem remains, resulting in what one critic has called a “crystalline prose.” The reader is able to discover in Doerr’s spare phrases the meaning and emotion the characters themselves hesitate to reveal. Critics have commented on the sense of oral storytelling of Stones for Ibarra in particular and Doerr’s use of vignettes to advance the story.

Both of her novels reveal as much about the “lost” North American expatriates as they do about the Mexican natives, and, by shifting perspectives, they allow the reader to see each group or individual through the eyes of the other. Compared with the Mexico in novels by such authors as Graham Greene, Malcolm Lowry, and D. H. Lawrence, Doerr’s Mexico is a friendlier, more humane place, where the Mexicans are as perplexed about the North Americans as the North Americans are about the Mexicans. It is a no less tragic Mexico, but tragedy is quotidian, a normal part of life for natives and expatriates. Despite their differences, despite the clash of cultures in the conflict zone of cultural interaction, their shared sense of tragedy and search for saving grace unites Mexican and North American.

Stones for Ibarra

Stones for Ibarra began as a series of short stories that share a general location in a central Mexican town so small that it does not appear on the map of Mexico. Doerr claimed that only about 10 percent of Stones for Ibarra is autobiographical, but the framework of the novel recalls the Doerr family’s forays to Mexico.

Like the Doerrs, the fictional Sara and Richard Everton go to Mexico from San Francisco to reclaim the family estate and reopen a copper mine abandoned since the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Not long after their arrival at the unexpectedly dilapidated house (it falls far short of both the faded family photographs and the Evertons’ dreams), Richard is diagnosed with leukemia; the estimate is that he has six years to live. Doerr’s prose is so restrained that Richard’s illness and impeding death are treated no more dramatically than any number of other elements in the novel. The vignettes that constitute the work’s eighteen chapters chronicle a series of events that focus on one character of Ibarra after another; they are connected by the passage of time between the arrival of Richard and Sara Everton and Sara’s departure six years later.

“The Red Taxi,” for example, tells the story of Chuy Santos, whose two friends, El Gallo and El Golondrino, or the Rooster and the Swallow, work at the Everton mine. Together the three men decide to buy an aged Volkswagen and become partners in a taxi service. Unfortunately, the two friends, working in unsafe conditions after hours in order to make enough...

(The entire section is 1240 words.)