Stones for Ibarra

Harriet Doerr, 1984

I was drawn to Stones for Ibarra by a Wikipedia comparison to One Hundred Years of Solitude and a mention of magical realism.

Stones is the story of Sara and Richard Delton and their experience in moving from California to Ibarra, a small village in Mexico, to reopen Richard’s grandfather’s abandoned copper mine. Nearly every chapter is a glimpse into one facet of the lives of the villagers – the poor, the pious, and the slightly criminal.  Soon though, it’s clear that we are inside Sara’s head, and the last few chapters are less about the village and more about their marriage.

Doerr’s prose is spare and expressive; if the book were a painting it would be drawn with vivid colors, a landscape populated with simply depicted people and animals. The viewer would have a clear understanding of the lives being illustrated and of the natural world surrounding them.

What puzzled me was why the Deltons even have a place in the painting.  They definitely have their own story line, and a sad one it is – but it’s awkwardly juxtaposed with village life until the last couple of chapters.

This is explained by the fact that Harriet Doerr and her husband Albert did move from San Francisco to Mexico to run Albert’s family mine, and their story ended much as the Deltons’ did.   Although it’s presented as novel rather than memoir, this is based on actual events.   I’m not certain how strictly autobiographical it is – did Luis, Ignacio, and Paz really exist? Did Lourdes the housekeeper really hide charms around the house to keep the Deltons healthy and the mine prosperous? We don’t know, and I don’t want to know.

Stones for Ibarra  was published in 1984 – a little young for a classic, but it reads like a classic and it won a National Book Award for First Work of Fiction, among many other awards.  The author wrote a second novel and a collection of short stories and essays. The book was the basis for a movie made for TV in 1988 starring Glenn Close and Keith Carradine. I have not seen the movie.

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