Among the Volcanoes Critical Overview
by Omar S. Castaneda

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Critical Overview

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

A small village nestled on the shore of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. Published by Gale Cengage

When Among the Volcanoes was published in 1991, it did not attract widespread critical attention, although it was well-received by the critics who reviewed it. The novel appears on educational reading lists for its sensitive portrayal of teenaged Isabel and its vibrant and realistic depiction of rural Mayan life. The critical consensus is clearly that Castañeda made excellent use of the Fulbright research fellowship that enabled him to travel to his native Central America to study the Mayan people and their culture. One critic found the characters and their lives as realistic and informative as educational programming. Critics universally praised Castañeda's reverent treatment of the Mayan culture, acknowledging that the compelling presentation makes it interesting to American teenagers who know very little about Guatemala. Diane Roback and Richard Donahue of Publishers Weekly commended Castañeda for his "quietly realistic portrait of life’’ in Guatemala that includes political upheaval, poverty, and cultural elements. Lucinda Snyder Whitehurst of School Library Journal praised Castañeda for not sensationalizing the fact that the Pacays live in times of political danger, but rather showing how their constant fear has become a part of their daily lives.

According to Roback and Donahue, Isabel's life is "both simpler and harder" than the life of a typical American teenager. American culture accepts and welcomes change, making transitions less traumatic to the community. In Isabel's Mayan village, however, change is met with extreme resistance and suspicion. At the same time, the people of the village understand that they must accommodate changes they cannot stop. Whitehurst made special note that the Pacays find ways to reconcile traditional beliefs with contemporary Catholicism, education, and new ideas about women. Impressed with the multidimensional character of Isabel, Whitehurst.

Among the Volcanoes is respected among Castañeda's work, although he garnered the most attention for his only picture book, Abuela's Weave. All of his writing relates to his Central American heritage, and many of his short stories are solidly in the tradition of magic realism so popular among Latin American authors.