The Flower in the Skull

Sonora Desert, Mexico
Sonora Desert, Mexico (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Kathleen Alcalá; Harcourt Brace & Company; @ 1998; 180 pages.

This novel was a nice diversion. And what a tear jerker! Oh my goodness. I was so sad to see our main character, Concha, leave the Sonoran desert. Here’s a nice description of her homeland as told by the last female narrator in the book:

I realized that I missed the intense light of the Sonoran Desert—light unaccompanied by a proximity to water. The light in Sonora reduced every item on which it fell to its elemental self—light and dark, substance and shadow, reflection and absorption.”

Concha, a young girl from the now extinct Opata tribe, is forced to flee with her family from their tribal lands in the Sonoran desert of Mexico. She left everything behind, even her real name. The story follows her journey to Tucson, Arizona, and the course of her life and also the first part of her daughter Rosa’s young adult life. This is the story of their “legacy of dislocation.”

I loved this book until the last section, which brought the reader into the present. I was so involved with the characters in the first and middle sections that I had really high hopes for the ending. There were elements of magical realism sprinkled around in various places that I just love anyway, but to me, the ending missed its mark. The imagery of the sea could have been brought in and tied to the beginning, and I really wanted a stronger idea of how the last character related to the first two.

I couldn’t understand the final female protagonist. She seemed weak. She did things that I didn’t want her to do and that I didn’t understand. I get where she was coming from (trying not to be a spoiler here), but I guess I needed to understand more about her before I could accept her weakness, her perceived lack of options, and at least one instance of really poor judgement.

The last line threw me too. I didn’t understand it. I think I missed a huge point. As I turn it over in my mind, I still don’t know for sure.

Kathleen Alcalá creates a interesting structure for this novel. The point of view changes several times and for several reasons throughout the book. I found it interesting and risky, but it works.

Alcalá uses Spanish to make many of her main points. If you don’t speak Spanish, get out your dictionary or you’ll miss some things. There were only a few words I didn’t know, so I got a kick out of it. But for non-Spanish-speaking readers, I’m not sure the context is enough to give the meaning of the Spanish words.

And maybe that’s the point, but it’s a risk to leave your reader in the dark.

I definitely want to read more from this author. She also wrote Spirits of the Ordinary.

Here is a quote from the beginning of the book that I found interesting, and it seems to directly relate to the relationship between Concha and Rosa:

Amid those internal changes
Your skull fills with a new life,
and instead of thoughts, has flowers.”

Manual Acuña, from “Before a Corpse”


Y en medio de esos cambios interiores
tu cráneo lleno de una nueva vida,
en vez de pensamientos dará flores.”

Manual Acuña, de “Ante un cadaver”

I think it’s prettier in Spanish.

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