The Watcher in the Pine

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

In The Watcher in the Pine, Rebecca Pawel introduces the reader to unlikely newlyweds, Carlos Tejada and Elena Fernandez, their new home, and a murder mystery. Pawel courageously and seamlessly switches between Carlos’s and Elena’s points of view, giving the novel richness and creating an intimate relationship between the characters and the reader.

The story begins in 1940, as Carlos and Elena move to Potes, a rural village in the mountains of northern Spain. Carlos has just been promoted to lieutenant of the Guardia Civil. Potes was devastated by the Spanish Civil War, leaving it with few functional buildings and little love for the Guardia. Many of the villagers lost love ones at the hands of the Guardia after being accused of being Reds or Red sympathizers. Carlos quickly learns that the village’s mountains are filled with militant Maquis (Red Guerillas), who ambush the Guardia performing their nightly patrols, and that much of the town sympathizes with the Maquis’s ideals. On his first day as lieutenant, Carlos discovers that his predecessor, lieutenant Calero, was killed during his patrol, presumably by the Maquis. Carlos realizes he must immediately stop the Maquis and solve the murder of Calero with a staff of five grossly incompetent officers, as well as help Elena settle into rural life.

Finding unsuitable the converted jail cells that they had been given as living quarters, Carlos moves Elena and himself to the Fonda, the local inn and tavern run by the Montalbáns. Bárbara Montalbán is not happy to accommodate any Guardia and only reluctantly allows them to stay. Elena overhears a conversation between patrons of the tavern and learns that Bárbara’s husband, Anselmo Montalbán, has been missing for some time.

As Carlos struggles to establish himself in his new position, Elena also struggles to create a new life for herself in Potes. Pregnant, she desperately tries to make friends in the village but is met with suspicion and resentment, to which she becomes accustomed as a Guardia’s wife. To complicate the matter, she herself is a Red sympathizer whose brother fled the country to escape a Guardia firing squad. Elena remembers her mother telling her before her wedding, “You can’t stay on both sides, Elenita. And if you marry him, you’ll become one of Them.” Pawel tenderly illustrates and personalizes Elena’s constant internal battle between loving her husband and hating the career that defines him.

Already frustrated, when Carlos tries to hold people for questioning about recent events he discovers that there are not enough holding cells. He visits the town mayor, Señor Alcalde, and the director of devastated regions, Señor Rosas, in the hopes of building new cells, and learns not only that is the town unable to devote the labor needed for building a new jail but also that building supplies and a dynamite shipment have been stolen by the Maquis. Realizing the implications of dynamite at the Maquis’s disposal, Carlos contacts the commander of the Guardia Civil in Santander, Colonel Suárez, for additional officers to secure the town and recover the supplies.

Meanwhile, Elena, unsuccessful in befriending villagers, ventures out to the neighboring town of Tama to order furniture from the carpenter, Federico Álvarez. Elena’s anonymity in Tama allows her to socialize freely with the Álvarezes. She ingratiates herself into the family, helping their son Simón with algebra and their daughters, Teresa and Romonita, to mend a broken doll. Elena talks at length with Marta Álvarez and learns that Bárbara Montalbán’s youngest son, Jesulín, was killed by lieutenant Calero because the woman the lieutenant loved, Laura, loved Jesulín. Elena also learns that Bárbara’s older son, Baldo, was imprisoned by the Guardia and relocated to a work camp in a different region. Elena inquires about the education system in Potes, and Marta explains that the town’s teacher, Laura’s brother Román, was accused of being a Red and killed.

A former teacher, Elena offers to tutor the Álvarez children and decides to talk with the village priest, Father Bernardo, about starting a school. Father Bernardo agrees that Potes desperately needs a school, but there is no money or workforce to build one and no one left to teach. When Elena offers to help create a school however she can, the priest agrees to form a committee to petition the mayor for a school and appoints Elena its chairwoman. She and the priest agree to meet the following morning to tour...

(The entire section is 1855 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Booklist 101, no. 8 (December 15, 2004): 712.

Kirkus Reviews 72, no. 2 (January 15, 2005): 87.

Publishers Weekly 251, no. 48 (November 29, 2004): 26.