Woman Hollering Creek

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories gives the impression of having been published prematurely, before the author had accumulated enough significant material. Of the twenty-two sketches and stories in the book, several are slight; the collection as a whole, allowing for white space, runs only about 140 pages. That the reader is left hungry for more, however, testifies to the power of Cisneros’ best work. In contrast to a literary milieu whose predominant vision is darkly cynical and whose fashionable method is minimalist, Cisneros writes full-bodied fiction about people with passions that they are not afraid to act on. That those people are Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, living on both sides of the border, gives the stories a certain exoticism and also, almost certainly, helped the author gain early recognition. Yet the element of local color, authentic though it is, is secondary to this fiction’s universal appeal. Out of finely rendered, richly textured detail emerges a resonant affirmation of life.

Of the brief pieces, mostly no more than two or three pages long, several of the strongest appear in part 1, “My Lucy Friend Who Smells Like Corn.” Very few children appear as important characters in fiction of classic stature; of those who do, most are adolescent boys engaged in initiation quests. Cisneros’ younger children, especially her young girls, are a small but movingly eloquent addition to that canon. Too many realistic stories of the late twentieth century are nothing more than snapshots; Cisneros’ are snapshots with a moral stance. In the title piece, Lucy asks, “Have you ever eaten dog food? I have.” She lives in a house with a “screen door with no screen.” Those two details alone paint a graphic picture of poverty, yet the story is about the thrilling exuberance of these girls’ lives: “We’re going to run home backwards and we’re going to run home frontwards, look twice under the house where the rats hide and I’ll stick one foot in there because you dared me, sky so blue and heaven inside those white clouds.”

Childhood has its small tragedies as well, as in “Eleven,” in which the narrator, on her birthday, receives an unwanted gift: a terrible old red sweater from the school lost-and-found, which her teacher wrongly insists is hers. (The young girl says that “because she’s older and the teacher, she’s right and I’m not.”) Yet Cisneros’ children are above all resilient, eager to accept whatever gifts life may offer. In the hilariously titled “Barbie-Q,” the gift is a miraculous collection of dolls, only slightly damaged in a fire. “And if the prettiest doll…has a left foot that’s melted a little—so? If you dress her in her new ‘Prom Pinks’ outfit, satin splendor with matching coat, gold belt, clutch, and hair bow included, so long as you don’t lift her dress, right?—who’s to know.” The contrast between these small, vividly living people and the affluent, affectless characters of much contemporary fiction is striking and moving.

For the older children in part 2, “One Holy Night,” life grows darker and stranger; yet still they live it with passion. The sexual initiation of the eighth-grade narrator of the title piece, resulting in her pregnancy, is no ordinary back-alley affair, even if that is the sort of place where it happens. As the story opens, it has been “eighteen weeks since Abuelita chased him”—the man who called himself Chaq Uxmal Paloquín—“away with the broom”; the narrator has been exiled to a place “miles from home…this town of dust, with one wrinkled witch woman who rubs my belly with jade, and sixteen nosy cousins.” Where this mythic lover has gone, no one knows. Yet what matters to the narrator is that he is indeed mythic. He claimed descent from “an ancient line of Mayan kings,” and promised to love her “like a revolution, like a religion.… The stars foretell everything, he said. My birth. My son’s. The boy-child who will bring back the grandeur of my people from those who have broken the arrows, from those who have pushed the ancient stones off their pedestals.”

Juxtaposed against this fabulous realm is the grubby reality of the demon lover’s “broken thumbs and burnt fingers.… thick greasy fingernails he never cut and dusty hair”; and the linked reality of a society imbued with traditional Roman Catholic sexual morality, which regards the narrator, without empathy or understanding, simply as fallen.

It would be easy, and all too glib, to interpret this story psychologically: Unable to face the reality of the life she lives, from the externals of which there is no escape, this young girl retreats into neurotic fantasy. Yet the denouement is so dark and strange that it transcends rational analysis. At length a letter arrives from a distant convent, revealing the beginning of the truth about Chaq Uxmal Paloquín: “He was born on a street with no name in a town called Miseria.… His name is Chato which means fat-face. There is no Mayan blood.” Included is a picture of him in a newspaper...

(The entire section is 2085 words.)