Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 707
The book’s title is taken from a quote ascribed to Porfirio Diaz, president and dictator of Mexico from 1877 to 1911: “So far from God—so near the United States,” a reference to the military power and territorial ambition of the country north of its border. The land and the people in the area now called New Mexico were dominated by the Spaniards in the colonial period and the United States in the postcolonial years. More than a million square miles of Mexican territory was lost by Mexico to the United States following the Mexican-American War of 1845-1848, the price exacted by the victorious Americans. As part of Mexico, the New Mexico region had had a land system of large holdings and extensive communal estates where sheep were raised. Their heritage, culture, and land have remained a source of great pride to New Mexican Hispanos and Hispanas (a long-held, self-designated term).
Castillo has used this backdrop to write an amusing farce narrating the complicated lives of a New Mexican family of women. The narrator uses the guise of a storyteller by telling her tale in the colloquial style of the oral tradition and using the voice of an uneducated woman (whose speech abounds with double negatives and convoluted phrases). The novel is written in the regional speech of the Hispano of New Mexico; English is interspersed with Spanish words and phrases and assorted Spanish anglicisms. Much of the storytelling fun is related to the meaning of Spanish words interjected by the narrator as she moves from one language to the other (code switching), a technique that the author uses quite effectively.
So Far from God, like oral history, echoes the old legends and the contemporary reality suffered by New Mexicans and Mexicans, blending the real with the unreal. An often-repeated tale told by a good storyteller loses its original, insipid details and becomes suffused with unexplained magic and fantastic occurrences to make it a more exciting story. Similarly, the novel uses this technique to raise humble circumstances and commonplace events to legendary status. In the voice of the storyteller, facts become blurred and myths are created. Old Mexican legends become part of the reality of daily life in Tome, New Mexico.
The protagonists of the novel are not meant to be serious, believable people; instead, they are comic, two-dimensional characters portraying exaggerated qualities and tendencies, and the reader has few insights into their thoughts. Fe’s husband Casey (Casimiro), although an accountant, was the descendant of an old sheepherding family that had lost its landholdings in the previous fifty years. Three hundred years of sheepherding, however, seven generations of sheepherders preceding Casey, left their mark on him: He made a soft bleating sound, a whispered ba-aaa that Fe found embarrassing.
Castillo uses long chapter headings that give the reader a summary of the chapter’s contents, in much the same manner that Miguel de Cervantes did in Don Quixote de la Mancha . In addition, the language used by the author in the titles is heavily reminiscent of the Spanish author’s style: “An Account of the First Astonishing Occurrence in the Lives of a Woman Named Sofía and Her Four Fated Daughters; and the Equally Astonishing Return of Her Wayward Husband” is the first chapter heading. When the author wants to become didactic concerning the pollution of water, land, air, and people in New Mexico, she cleverly proposes it in the chapter heading: “La Loca Santa Returns to the World via Albuquerque Before her Transcendental Departure; and a Few Random Political Remarks from the Highly Opinionated Narrator.” The style and language of...
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the long headings place the reader in a certain time and place, a space where the old Spanish traditions commingle with the indigenous culture of the Americas.
Castillo brings together an amazing mixture of characters who make fun of contemporary Anglo-American cultural traits and New Mexican traditions and legends by juxtaposing them and turning the protagonists into farcical and distorted parodies of these characteristics. The novel is funnier to the Latino bilingual reader who understands the references to legends and the Spanish/English puns, but readers in general will gain deeper insights into the reality of native New Mexicans and explore a few universal “truths.”