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So Far from God is a tragicomedy that details the adventures and misadventures of Sofi and her four daughters, Esperanza, Caridad, Fe, and La Loca (Hope, Charity, Faith, and the Crazy One), all of whom possess unusual traits. Set in a small desert town in New Mexico, the novel relates...

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So Far from God is a tragicomedy that details the adventures and misadventures of Sofi and her four daughters, Esperanza, Caridad, Fe, and La Loca (Hope, Charity, Faith, and the Crazy One), all of whom possess unusual traits. Set in a small desert town in New Mexico, the novel relates the rather strange occurrences in the life of Sofi, a fiercely independent and strong-willed woman who works hard to raise her daughters and continues to care for them when they return home suffering from the effects of ill-starred love affairs.

The three oldest sisters follow society’s expectations by initially pursuing romantic love and marriage. In the case of Esperanza, her lover, Ruben (who renamed himself Cuauhtemoc during his chicano activist days), leaves her to marry a wealthy Anglo woman. After she accepts a job as a television reporter in Washington, D.C., she is sent to cover the Persian Gulf War; she is kidnapped and disappears for some time. The family finds out that she has been killed when the well-known figure of Mexican legend, La Llorona (“the Weeping Woman”), appears to La Loca to tell her that Esperanza is dead. The family receives the official news later.

Caridad, the second daughter, a hospital orderly, marries her high school boyfriend, Memo, after she becomes pregnant. Memo goes back to his former girlfriend, however, and Caridad has an abortion that is performed by her youngest sister, La Loca (who subsequently repeats the procedure) without their mother’s knowledge. Her loving nature moves her to seek substitutes for Memo until she is bodily attacked by an evil force, a beast of legend, that almost kills her. Her mother and sisters nurse her back to life, and La Loca’s powerful prayers (in something akin to a miracle) return her mutilated body to its former beauty. During her apprenticeship as a curandera, she joins the traditional Catholic pilgrimage to the Sangre de Cristo mountains, where she unexpectedly remains and lives as a hermit in a cave for a year. Ultimately, obsessed by a woman with whom she falls in love, Caridad dies (disappears) as she leaps off a high desert plateau with this woman.

Fe, the third daughter, has an equally strange life and also dies at a young age from cancer. Her death is the result of the chemicals she is required to use as a factory worker in a plant that subcontracts work from a Pentagon weapons contractor.

The fourth daughter, La Loca, behaves in a peculiar fashion (after her supposed death and resurrection at age three), becoming averse to human smell and the physical closeness of anyone except her mother, possessed of a special affinity to animals, a child who becomes a woman without ever leaving the confines of the area surrounding her house. In a different place, she might have been called autistic—a psychological word stripped of the mythical connotations and spiritual gifts attributed to La Loca.

While still a young woman, La Loca mysteriously contracts AIDS and dies. One by one, the other sisters die or disappear in bizarre circumstances. Nevertheless, Sofía faces her many misfortunes with strength, determination, patience, and the wisdom implied in her name. Her husband plays only a peripheral and insignificant role in her life, a background prop. In the final chapter, her daughters’ untimely deaths lead Sofi to found the “prestigious” organization M.O.M.A.S. (Mothers of Martyrs and Saints), where she remains as president and a tower of strength for thirty-eight years.

Throughout the novel, the narrator immerses the reader in a tapestry of folklore, culture, legends, New Mexican recipes, and home remedies used by curanderas. These seemingly disparate threads are all carefully woven into the fanciful tale that runs in many directions and is full of unexpected happenings. The author also uses the narrative to explore the causes of present-day environmental problems, the callous nature of factory owners who put profits over the health and lives of workers, the dangers of cancer-producing chemicals, the critical nature of AIDS, and other contemporary social issues.

Context

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A native of Chicago, Castillo is a chicana, a term with the connotation of political activism as used by Mexican Americans. Initially a poet published by small Latino presses, she later turned to fiction. In more recent years, she has been “discovered” as a Latina writer by mainstream publishers and a more general readership. Chicana critics have often defined Castillo’s literary work as social protest and feminist. Her writing, however, reflects the perspective of a chicana feminist; that is, it is a feminism infused with issues of culture, ethnicity, and social justice, as well as gender-specific concerns. So Far from God exemplifies this tendency. The novel is not necessarily a “feminist” work; nevertheless, the narrative is written from a chicana feminist perspective. The emphasis on female protagonists to the exclusion of males, except as adjuncts to the narrative, is clear. The heroic Sofía is an exemplary mother whose qualities of independence, strength, and determination are often ascribed to males.

So Far from God is a change of pace for Castillo. Her first work of fiction, The Mixquiahuala Letters (1986), is an epistolary novel with a well-defined feminist focus, written in a lyrical prose. This story of the intimate friendship between two women reveals the effects of the sexual repression imposed on women by Mexican culture and the women’s rebellion against this tradition. Unlike Castillo’s first novel, So Far from God does not present the inner thoughts of women caught between two cultures with diverging viewpoints on the sexuality of women; instead, the reader perceives a multitude of issues concerning society as a whole, told by a narrator with a strong feminist perspective.

Most of Castillo’s poetry has feminist themes with a deeply erotic strain. Her fiction, however, is provocative and varies thematically and in literary technique. Nevertheless, in both genres, Castillo propagates her own brand of feminism.

Castillo’s first novel received the Before Columbus Foundation’s American Book Award. Similarly, So Far from God has garnered two awards: the Carl Sandberg Literary Award in Fiction and the Mountain and Prairie Regional Booksellers Award in Fiction.

Historical Context

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The Feminist Chicana Movement
The Chicano/a Movement was born in the wine-growing region of California in the early 1970s when Cesar Chavez organized the mainly Hispanic migrant farmworkers into an effective, vocal labor union. Within a few years authors, poets, actors, and politicians were demonstrating and demanding equal rights for Americans of Hispanic descent in terms of language recognition, cultural integrity, and political power. As the movement grew, many women within the movement began to feel left out or misunderstood. Writers like Sandra Cisneros, Josaphina Lopez, and Gloria Anzaldua argued for a pro-female wing to the movement, saying that the concerns of Hispanic women were being ignored by the traditional macho attitude of the male leaders. Ana Castillo enlivened the debate by casting doubts on both the traditional definitions of womanhood and the newer "liberated" Hispanic woman put forward by the Feminist Chicana Movement.

OSHA/EPA Enforcement
So Far From God also criticizes the lack of enforcement of the federal government's rules in the workplace (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and the environment (Environmental Protection Agency). Castillo subtly argues, through the tragic death of Fe, that most of this enforcement comes too little, too late. OSHA is a federal agency that is supposed to monitor working conditions and the health of America's workers. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, OSHA's policies were relaxed and the number of inspectors was reduced. The federal government of the period preferred a more business-friendly policy and so did not rigorously enforce OSHA regulations. The EPA was run in a similar manner. Castillo's novel attacks this "hands-off" approach as being deadly and dangerous.

Literary Style

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Point of View
So Far From God is told by a third-person fully omniscient narrator who intrudes in the text as almost a separate character. She is funny, witty, and irreverent. Each chapter begins with a lengthy title similar to the ''argument'' before each canto of an epic poem. The narrator then enters the text with a funny summary of the coming action. However, all this plot preview in no way detracts from the novel's excitement or the reader's enjoyment. Rather, it builds anticipation by letting readers know what is going to happen and then letting them sit back and enjoy the ride.

Language
In her interview with Simon Romero, Castillo explains that though she did not grow up or live in the New Mexico area, she wanted to capture the style of language spoken there. She suggests that the English and the Spanish are highly localized and unlike the language spoken in California or Chicago. She mixes Spanish phrases into the text with great regularity and tries to elongate the sentences, to mimic the conversation style of the peoples of the area. In her use of Englished Spanish and Spanished English, Castillo attempts to create a new language, one that all her readers can understand and enjoy.

Epic Fiction
So Far From God is written as a kind of satirical prose epic in the tradition of Cervantes's Don Quixote. Castillo's use of the supernatural, high language, episodic structure, and the witty narrator all contribute to this form. Sofi's tragedies and triumphs are described in epic terms, and the story of a no-name woman in the middle of a tiny Hispanic New Mexico town takes on great themes and ideas. Sofi rises from being an abandoned wife to the head of an international organization. Castillo's novel is full of wit, humor, and a sadness that challenges her readers to redefine what being great and successful means.

Bibliography

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Alarcón, Norma, et al., eds. Chicana Critical Issues. Berkeley, Calif.: Third Woman Press, 1993. This text focuses on issues of identity and difference and includes critical essays on chicana literature that will broaden the context for So Far from God. The bibliography by Lillian Castillo-Speed, “Chicana Studies: An Updated List of Materials, 1980-1991,” is currently the most comprehensive in print.

Castillo, Ana. “A Conversation with Ana Castillo.” Interview by Elsa Saeta. Texas College English 26 (Fall, 1993): 1-6. In this interview, Castillo discusses her development as a writer, her literary influences, and her philosophical perspectives. Helps to place Castillo’s work in context by providing insights into the personal, philosophical, and political concerns that define her work.

Castillo, Ana. “Massacre of the Dreamers—Reflections on Mexican-Indian Women in the U.S.: Five Hundred Years After the Conquest.” In Critical Fictions: The Politics of Imaginative Writing, edited by Philomena Mariani. Seattle: Bay Press, 1991. In this critical essay, Castillo discusses some of the theoretical perspectives that influence her work. Castillo defines her poetics and examines Chicana writers’ relationship to their culture, their language, and their history.

Castillo, Ana. A MELUS Interview: Ana Castillo, by Elsa Saeta. MELUS 22 (Fall, 1997): 133-149. In this extended conversation, Castillo discusses her writings, particularly the feminist perspective of her novels, and provides information about her career. The interviewer calls her “one of the most articulate, powerful voices in contemporary Chicana literature.”

Delgadillo, Theresa. “Forms of Chicana Feminist Resistance: Hybrid Spirituality in Ana Castillo’s So Far from God.Modern Fiction Studies 44 (Winter, 1998): 888-889. Explores Castillo’s characterization of Chicanas as a group of passive people who become victims of oppression and a patriarchal church, and their eventual emergence from subjugation.

Herrera-Sobek, Maria, and Helena Maria Viramontes, eds. “Chicana Creativity and Criticism: Charting New Frontiers in American Literature.” The Americas Review 15, nos. 3 and 4 (1987). This special double issue of the literary journal includes chicana literature and criticism. Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano’s essay “Chicana Literature, from a Chicana Feminist Perspective” discusses the relationship between chicana feminist literature and political activism in the community. This essay will give the reader of So Far from God a better understanding of Castillo’s feminist perspective.

Horno-Delgado, Asunción, et al., eds. Breaking Boundaries: Latina Writing and Critical Readings. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989. This volume contains feminist criticism of Latina writers. The authors’ introduction analyzes Latina literature as an expression of cultural heritage and historical circumstances not as a search for identity. The authors also include a selected bibliography of works by and criticism of Latina writers. The article on Castillo by Norma Alarcón, “The Sardonic Powers of the Erotic in the Work of Ana Castillo,” although written before the publication of So Far from God, gives the reader some insights into the author’s work; in particular, Alarcón places the sexual ironies in Castillo’s poetry and her first novel within the context of the cultural tradition of the chicana.

Kingsolver, Barbara. “Desert Heat.” Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 16, 1993, pp. 1, 9. Kingsolver’s review suggests that the novel could be “the offspring of a union between One Hundred Years of Solitude and General Hospital: a sassy, magical, melodramatic . . . delightful novel.” Kingsolver discusses the novel’s strengths specifically: the characters and their development, the narrative voice, and Castillo’s venture into North American Magical Realism.

Lanza, Carmela D. “Hearing the Voices: Women and Home and Ana Castillo’s So Far from God.MELUS 23 (Spring, 1998): 65-79. Lanza’e essay compares Castillo’s book to Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, identifying So Far from God as a “postmodern inversion” of Alcott’s novel. Both novels deal with the relationships between four sisters, but Castillo’s book is “infused with political resistance” where women of color have an opportunity to grow spiritually and politically.

Limón, José E. “La Llorona, the Third Legend of Greater Mexico: Cultural Symbol, Women, and the Political Unconscious.” In Between Borders: Essays on Mexicana/Chicana History, edited by Adelaida R. Del Castillo. Encino, Calif.: Floricanto Press, 1990. Limón’s essay focuses on the three women who dominate Mexican culture: La Malinche (Hernan Cortez’s interpreter and mistress), the Virgen de Guadalupe (Mexico’s patron saint), and La Llorona (the Weeping Woman). This scholarly article will acquaint the reader with the complex and interrelated symbolism of the three women.

Mirandé, Alfredo, and Evangelina Enriquez. La Chicana: The Mexican American Woman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979. The first book published on chicanas, it gives a comprehensive historical and sociological perspective on Mexican American women. The first chapter includes an overview of legendary female figures in Mexican history, folklore, and mythology (some of whom are referred to in So Far from God). There is also the chapter “Images in Literature,” which looks at the stereotypical images of Mexican women as portrayed by Anglo writers in the nineteenth century, followed by a discussion of contemporary chicano and chicana writers.

Walter, Roland. “The Cultural Politics of Dislocation and Relocation in the Novels of Ana Castillo.” MELUS 23 (Spring, 1998): 81-97. Walter addresses the politics of dislocation and relocation as a “key aspect of interacting social and cultural practices and ideological discourses” in Castillo’s novels.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Anzaldua, Gloria, Borderlands: La Frontera, the New Mestiza, Aunt Lute Books, p. 203.

Delgadillo, Theresa, ‘‘Forms of Chicana Feminist Resistance: Hybrid Spirituality in Ana Castillo's So Far From God,’’ in MFS, Vol. 44, No. 4, Winter, 1998, pp. 888-916.

Lanza, Carmela Delia, ‘‘Hearing the Voices: Women and Home and Ana Castillo's So Far From God,’’ in MELUS, Vol. 23, No. 1, Spring, 1998, pp. 65-79.

Platt, Kamala, ‘‘Ecocritical Chicana Literature: Ana Castillo's 'Virtual Realism,’’' in Greta Gaard and Patrick Murphy's Ecofeminist Literary Criticism: Theory, Interpretation, Pedagogy, University of Illinois Press, 1998, pp. 139-57.

Romero, Simon, ‘‘An Interview with Ana Castillo,’’ in NuCity, June 18-July 1, 1993.

Saeta, Elsa, "A MELUS Interview: Ana Castillo,’’ in MELUS, Vol. 22, No. 3, Fall, 1997, pp. 133-49.

Walter, Roland, ‘‘The Cultural Politics of Dislocation and Relocation in the Novels of Ana Castillo,’’ in MELUS, Vol. 23, No. 1, Spring, 1998, pp. 81-97.

Further Reading
Ferriss, Susan, Ricardo Sandoval, and Diana Hembree, editors, The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement, Harcourt Brace, 1997, p. 288.
A recent biography of Chavez and the Farmworkers' Union. Discusses his role in starting the Chicano/a Movement.

Gonzalez, Maria, ‘‘Love and Conflict: Mexican American Women Writers as Daughters,'' in Women of Color: Mother-Daughter Relationships in 20th-Century Literature, edited by Brown, Guillory, and Elizabeth, University of Texas Press, 1996, pp. 153-71.
Compares the work of Sandra Cisneros, Denise Chavez, and Ana Castillo in terms of family, language, and female identity.

Jones Hampton, Janet, ‘‘Ana Castillo: Painter of Palabras,’’ in Americas, Vol. 52, No. 1, January/February, 2000, pp. 48-53.
The article casts Castillo as a verbal and visual artist dealing with her ideas of turning forty.

McCracken, Ellen, ‘‘Rupture, Occlusion and Repression: The Political Unconscious in the New Latina Narrative of Julia Alvarez and Ana Castillo,’’ in Confrontations et Metissages, edited by Benjamin Labarthe et al, Maison des Pays Iberiques, 1995, pp. 319-28.
McCracken explores the narrative structure of Castillo's So Far From God and Alvarez's How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.

Montabanc, William, ‘‘Latin America: A Quixotic Land Where the Bizarre Is Routine,’’ in Marilyn Smith Layton's Intercultural Journeys, HarperCollins, 1991, pp. 107-10.
A collection of true reports from Latin America makes Montabano explore and question the reality and the absurdity of life "south'' of the border.

Sachez, Rosaura, ‘‘Reconstructing Chicana Identity,’’ in American Literary History, Vol. 9, No. 2, Summer, 1997, pp. 350-63.
Explores how Hispanic-American women writers have defined and redefined women in light of the Civil Rights Movement, the Feminist Movement, and the Labor Movement.

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