Stones for Ibarra

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Sara and Richard Everton, Americans somewhere near the presumed middle of their lives, leave their San Francisco home and everything that is familiar to them, borrow on their insurance, and drive to a remote village in Mexico where they have decided to spend the rest of their lives. Standing on the cracked porch of the house that she will occupy for the next six years, with lizards basking at her feet and hornets swarming about, Sara Everton finishes a thought begun on the dusty road the night before. “I wonder,” she says aloud to the empty landscape, “if we have gone out of our minds.”

This accomplished and satisfying first novel by Harriet Doerr, published when the author was in her middle seventies, makes the answer to such a question almost irrelevant, for the life the Evertons lead in Ibarra confounds both their expectations and those of the reader. The values and assumptions that sustain the townspeople in this remote village are so different from their own that Sara and Richard seem alien and bizarre. They are, the Mexicans decide, mediodesorientado, half disoriented in this primitive world, like laughing blindfolded children spinning beneath a piñata. Rejecting superstition and an all-pervading religious faith that blurs distinctions between present and past, Sara and Richard live for six years on the periphery of the town and the culture and learn only gradually that their own perceptions are blurred and that they, like their neighbors, finally exist only on faith.

Stones for Ibarra has a clarity and precision of style rare in any fiction, let alone a first novel. Eight of the eighteen chapters appeared before publication in various journals. Although each chapter has a self-contained quality that makes this episodic appearance appropriate, Stones for Ibarra has the unity and continuity of a single exhaled breath. It is a story about death and imagination, filled with the best kind of descriptive metaphors, those that extend the theme of the novel and define its tone. The desert and the poverty of the village never simplify the process of perception; instead, they seem to isolate moments of existence, making the most violent incidents seem at once unique and unremarkable, part of an endless, inevitable sequence of events.

Like Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (1947), D. H. Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent (1926), and other works of fiction that depict the juxtaposition of the two conflicting cultures in this southern section of the Northern Hemisphere, Stones for Ibarra throws into relief the differences between the cold rationality of the North Americans and the harsh simplicity of the Native Americans and Spaniards. The Evertons and their neighbors come to accept but not really to understand one another. Communication remains imperfect; the disorientation is permanent. There is in this novel, however, no sense of defeat. When Sara leaves Ibarra, she has gained more than she has given: She and the villagers become part of the same memory.

The Evertons are people of impulse. They leave their box-hedged house, with its glimpse of San Francisco Bay, in pursuit of an illusion engendered by a packet of old photographs and a few old letters in a bundle marked “Mexico.” Richard’s grandfather had owned and worked a copper mine in Ibarra. His father had played there in the dusty roads with the Mexican boys. The wallpaper of the old house had been imported from France; there were polished dance floors and grass tennis courts, orchards and flower beds, all left behind in the Revolution of 1910. Seduced by these fragments of a past, Richard and Sara sell their possessions and pack their station wagon, marking with a red line on a creased map the road to a town so far from civilization that it had no cinema, no airport, no telephones, a town of “a hundred burros, half as many bicycles, one daily bus, and two automobiles.” The two of them, drawn by the faded sepia images, will replant the flower beds, drain the water from the tunnels in the mine, order new machinery, polish the floors. Out of the past, they plan to create a future.

Whatever may have been in their minds originally is forgotten when, halfway through the first year, Richard Everton is diagnosed as having leukemia. He will live, they are told, perhaps six years. Time then loses...

(The entire section is 1784 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Christian Science Monitor. LXXVI, January 6, 1984, p. B6.

Daley, Yvonne. “Late Bloomer.” Stanford Magazine, November-December, 1997, 76-79. A visit with Doerr at her home when she is eighty-seven years old and working on her autobiography, which she plans to divide into three sections: her years as a housewife and mother, her years in Mexico, and her years as a writer.

Henderson, Katherine. “Harriet Doerr.” Inter/View: Talks with America’s Writing Women, edited by Mickey Pearlman and Katherine Usher Henderson. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1990. An essay based on an interview with Doerr. Provides basic biographical information and briefly discusses Stones for Ibarra. Explains the origin of the title from Mexican Indian practice.

Kirkus Reviews. LI, October 15, 1983, p. 1102.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 1, 1984, p. 4.

Ms. XII, January, 1984, p. 12.

New Directions for Women. XIII, July, 1984, p. 10.

The New Republic. CXC, April, 1984, p. 40.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, January 8, 1984, p. 8.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIV, November 4, 1983, p. 57.

See, Lisa. “Harriet Doerr.” Writing for Your Life Number Two, edited by Sybil Steinberg. New York: Publishers Weekly, 1995. Focuses on Doerr’s experiences in Mexico and their relationship to Stones for Ibarra and Consider This, Señora. Also discusses the effects of her age on her writing.

The Wall Street Journal. CCIII, January 23, 1984, p. 20.