This metaphor-laden young adult fantasy takes place in the small barely-a-town of Bicho Raro in Colorado in 1962 and is centered on the Soria family. All of the Sorias were gifted with the ability to perform miracles, especially the cousins Beatriz and Daniel, who were especially suited to the task: “They were stranger or holier than other people, depending upon whom you asked.”
The Soria cousins – Beatriz, Daniel, and Joaquin, were all very close, and operated a rogue radio station out in the desert. All of them had hopes and fears that obsessed them. Joaquin, 16, who used the D.J. handle “Diablo Diablo,” desperately wanted to be famous, and feared dying unknown. Beatriz, 18, feared emotions, and occupied herself with science to avoid feeling anything. Daniel, 19, was “the Saint of Bicho Raro” and was in charge of guiding the pilgrims who came to see them in search of a miracle. But he was afraid his private desires would interfere with the miracle process and hurt his family.
The “miracles” at Bicho Raro always came in twos. The first miracle was making the darkness inside a person visible:
“Over time, the darkness crusts in unpredictable layers, growing at such a pace that one doesn’t notice it has filled every cavern under the skin until movement becomes difficult or even impossible. Darkness never boils over. Darkness remains inside.”
Daniel could somehow draw it out of a person.
The darkness was made flesh, much in the way psychosomatic illnesses can express themselves, except that with the influence of the Sorias, the darkness took on fantastical forms. For example, the head of a lecherous priest turned into that of a coyote. These manifestations represented a puzzle for the pilgrim to solve and move on.
The second miracle, the healing, was up to the pilgrim.
“There was a law laid down among the Sorias to not interfere. If a Soria lifted a hand or breathed a word in aid, a darkness would fall on the Soria as well, and a Saint’s darkness was an even more terrible and powerful thing.”
When Beatriz & Daniel were young, they had discussed it. Beatriz: “I think the darkness is about shame.” Daniel: “I think you’re right.”
As the book begins, Tony DiRisio, also a D.J. like Joaquin, is heading to Bicho Raro looking for a miracle, and he has with him Pete Wyatt, 18, who is not a pilgrim but is heading there as well in search of a job. Still, Pete is not without his own problems; the doctor told him he has a hole in his heart, which he feels not only physically but emotionally: loneliness was “his second language.”
Pete and Beatriz are attracted to one another, and after one memorable night when they danced together, she thinks she finally understands that the process of miracles, with all its illogic, is really love.
Pete, an outsider, is able to discern the dysfunction of the Sorias’ vow not to talk to the pilgrims or indeed, even to each other. He suggests to Beatriz there is too much silence among the Sorias:
“There’s an awful lot of things that go on here that don’t get said. A lot of shut doors and closed eyes, just to be on the safe side. Maybe if you want things to change, you should start in yourself.”
“We smell Marisita’s cooking [Marisita is one of the pilgrims] and we are too afraid to even tell her that it smells delicious! We starve! We starve of – of everything because we are too afraid to eat! Look at us, all standing here, because we’re afraid of them.”
Beatriz comes to understand:
“. . . the Sorias’ real collective darkness was that they would not let themselves help others because they were too afraid of losing themselves, that they were so afraid of being open and true about their own fears and darkness that they put it in a box and refused to even accept that they, too, might need healing. And the longer they blocked it up, the more the pilgrims also blocked up . . . “
Beatriz also comes to realize that her darkness was being afraid to show she had feelings like other people. Pete helps her see the light.
Discussion: Stiefvater has a way of making the mundane miraculous, and the scientific lyrical, as with this meditation by Beatriz on radio waves:
“They travel on perfectly straight paths from their broadcast source, and because the Earth is round, it does not take them long to part ways with the ground and head out to the stars. Wouldn’t we all, if we had the chance?”
And here is how Beatriz thinks about the mere act of moving through the air:
“And now she thought instead about how really she was pushing through a crowded atomic city of invisible chemicals, microorganisms, and waves, the last of them detectable only because she held this magic box [radio] capable of receiving them and spitting them back out for her mortal ears.”
While this book was a bit too metaphorical for my tastes, a book by Stiefvater is always worth reading for the gorgeous flights of prose that intermittently sail through her books and stop you in your tracks.
Evaluation: Interesting and thought-provoking, this fantasy may be too stylistic for the tastes of many Stiefvater fans. But I think Stiefvater is always worth reading.
Published by Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic, Inc., 2017