Among the Volcanoes

by Omar S. Castaneda
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Last Updated on June 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1083

Freedom and Responsibility
Although Isabel understands that as the oldest daughter her duty is to take care of the family when her mother is sick, she cannot help but resent the new demands placed on her. In the first chapter, Castañeda writes, ‘‘She was the oldest child. She had duties. She was already at an age where marriage was expected, not idle desires to become a teacher. Sometimes, however, the duties were too much for her. She didn't feel smart enough or old enough to handle everything. Not yet, anyway." As Manuela's condition worsens, Isabel feels ashamed, because rather than being concerned only for her mother, she is filled with feelings of resentment and despair. When Eziquel, the healer, tells Manuela how lucky she is to have a daughter such as Isabel to take care of things, Isabel reels: "His words opened for Isabel the floodgate of her dread of never returning to school. . . . She would be doomed to care for her family until they all moved away or died. Even marriage would be postponed.’’

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Torn between guilt and personal misery, Isabel declares her selfishness at confession. The priest, however, assures her that her feelings are completely normal and tells her not to be so hard on herself. She is fulfilling her responsibilities like a good daughter, so she has no reason to feel shame, he says. Still, the priest's words do not ease her guilt.

Isabel often notices the birds around her and wishes "she could be a bird with the power to fly up and away from the problems not only of her village, but those within her own family.’’ Although she longs to be carefree and unfettered, she realizes that she is growing into adulthood, and that with age come responsibilities. By the end of the story, she has learned that freedom and responsibility are not necessarily opposites. When she takes responsibility for herself and talks to Lucas honestly about her seemingly impossible desires to be a teacher, she gains a sense of liberation. In the final words of the novel, all Isabel and Lucas ‘‘cared about was that, nestled among the volcanoes of Guatemala, there existed a hope with a secret pair of wings.’’ In embracing her duties as a mature woman, Isabel finds her wings at last.

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Making Choices
Throughout the novel, Castañeda portrays people in different situations faced with difficult choices. Isabel chooses to carry out her duties without complaining, even though inside she feels desperate. Through Isabel's memories of her mother, the reader understands that Manuela made choices out of love for her family. She made personal sacrifices, suffered the loss of two children, and never expected any reward. Isabel realizes that motherhood is ‘‘a path without detours, without places to rest. And though there were sister travelers, no one praised those who made the difficult and isolated journey.’’ Manuela's resolve in her decision-making is seen first-hand when she refuses to allow the doctor in Sololá to run any tests on her. She makes a choice that she would rather suffer from the illness than submit to the full course of Western medicine. Certainly, there are consequences for such a decision, but at the end of the novel Alfredo and Eziquel also make a choice—that they will not sit idly by and let Manuela die when they have the Western medicine available.

Allan makes choices from a different viewpoint than that of the Mayan villagers. He is part of the Western world, and he has made a choice to travel to Guatemala (like his father) and help people get better medical care. He does not understand enough about their culture to consider whether or not his efforts will be welcomed, so he is alarmed when his presence is met with suspicion and hostility. His most daring choice, however, is to give Isabel the medicine for Manuela, when he knows it may not be the cure. Worse, if it is the wrong treatment (Manuela would not allow tests to confirm the doctor's diagnosis), the medicine could harm her and thus end any hope of the Mayans accepting Allan or Western medicine. Castañeda does not reveal exactly why Allan makes this choice. Perhaps Allan feels it is his best (or only) chance to prove his worth to the Mayans. Perhaps he simply feels it is Manuela's best chance to be well again.

Castañeda shows that people make poor choices when they are filled with insecurity and doubt. Because Teresa wants Lucas back, she lies to him about Isabel's feelings. Lucas is plagued with jealousy, so he believes her. In both cases, these characters make choices based on personal insecurity rather than good sense, trust, and loyalty. As a result, Lucas temporarily creates distance between himself and Isabel when he really loves her very much, and Teresa ruins her friendships with both Isabel and Lucas.

Old Ways and New Ways
Among the Volcanoes portrays simple village life in the contemporary world. While modern conveniences are readily available all over the world, the village of Chuuí Chopaló is celebrating the installation of a single faucet in town. Castañeda contrasts the old ways with the new in various instances throughout the book to demonstrate the beauty and value of each in its own way. With regard to religion, villagers maintain their devotion to the gods of their indigenous religions, but also participate in Roman Catholic practices. Manuela's illness brings the blending of religious practices into sharp focus. One woman, for example, suggests that Manuela ‘‘pass a fresh egg over her body and say three Our Fathers.’’ At Eziquel's altar, Isabel notices a row of Catholic icons and saints over a row of stone idols, incense, and pine twigs. Similarly, Manuela performs the daily rituals of feeding her altar's stone mouth, but the family also attends Mass on Sunday.

As a parent, Alfredo teaches the children that ‘‘anything new is very dangerous.’’ Not until Manuela's condition is serious does he consider going to the Western hospital to try modern medicine. For Alfredo, change on a large scale must be approached with caution, whereas change on a small scale is less frightening. He routinely drinks rum and smokes cigars, even though he admits that traditionally, these were practices reserved for ceremonies. When it comes to interacting with strangers or adopting their ways, however, he is very suspicious, because the political climate in which he has lived has taught him that trusting the wrong people can have grave consequences.

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