Those of us living on or near the Mexican-American border know the themes by rote. We feel, hear, and see the dichotomies every day: the interplay of Spanish and English; the struggles between the old (Mexican tradition) and the new (North American brutalism); the familial ties loosened in the quest for a better life across the fence. Read the media reports and you get the impression that border people are no more than tumbleweeds rolling across paths and deserts, blown by the winds of chance. Once they were Mexicans. The border moved and they became North Americans, strangers in their own country. It’s a tale that bears re-telling.
These themes are aired in a terrific new novel, American Tumbleweeds, by Marta Elva. Elva worked for years in film and TV and boy does it show. The chapters are short and punchy, each narrated by a different character in a family that is rapidly falling apart. The constant shifts of viewpoint recall telenovelas, with their jumpcuts and cliffhangers.
If fiction is all about getting in and out of trouble, American Tumbleweeds doesn’t stint on the strife. Early in the book, Ramón, the family patriarch, is taken down by the FBI for smuggling marijuana. We watch the fallout wrecking everyone around him.
The strongest characters here are Ramón’s wife, Katrina, and their teenage daughter, Inez. Inez is wracked with guilt because she believes she has incriminated her father. She also has a bad case of teen-itis. Besides being a border novel and an inter-generational saga, American Tumbleweeds is also a coming-of-age story complete with adolescent bitchiness and first kisses.
Katrina, meanwhile, struggles to keep the family together, beset by threats from every angle, plus a thieving brother-in-law and the gibes of workmates and family.
Rightly, this novel doesn’t offer closure. How could it? In real life, the same themes will recur down the ages: the conflicts of family and the struggle to find a better life when the slings and arrows all seem to be aimed at you.
Elva has written a blistering yet tender saga that describes what it’s like to be in two worlds, to be at the edge of things. A great story brilliantly told.