Hard Red Spring, by Kelley Kerney, provides even more proof that fiction is better than textbooks for putting oneself into the shoes of people who lived in other places, at other times. So much information is conveyed in this book that I feel like I’ve had a college course on Guatemala’s history, but the characters brought the heartbreak home in a way that no course could have done. Hard Red Spring is told in four parts, focusing on four different American girls and women, who have come to live in Guatemala for various reasons. These characters have a limited view of larger events and are not always the most reliable of narrators. Still, the point of reading good historical fiction is not to learn the objective truth (as objective as it can be), but to learn the truths of life at the time. This book lays down some truths.
Hard Red Spring opens in 1902 with Evie Crowder. Evie is eight and came to live in Guatemala, near Xela (Quetzaltenango), after her father buys a struggling cochineal bug farm. Tensions are rising among the adults, but she’s not sure why. She learns nearly everything through overhearing her parents conversations or conversations between the servants. When the nearby volcano erupts, it triggers a political crisis. What happens to Evie and her parents becomes a mystery for the characters who come along later in the book.
Our second narrator is Dorie Honeycutt. She is the sheltered wife of an American ambassador and United Fruit Company executive. While she pursues a strange affair with her best friend’s husband, Dorie hears snatches of news about the growing unrest in the country. The United Fruit men hate that they have to work within the boundaries imposed by the local Communist government. Because it is 1954, this is the heyday of CIA-backed coups and Dorie finds herself smack in the middle of one.
The third narrator is Lenore Beasley. In 1983, at the height of the Guatemalan Civil War and forced disappearances and atrocities, Lenore arrives at a “model village” near Xela to work as a missionary with her husband. She was inspired by an appearance by the Guatemalan president on (of all things) The 700 Club. She believes with all her heart that she is doing god’s work, but the facts of her experience lead her to question what she and her husband have become a part of.
The last narrator is Jean Roseneath. Jean and her adopted daughter, Maya, have arrived in Guatemala in 1990 on a roots tour to help heal their strained relationship. Jean suffers deeply from white guilt. She’s almost a stereotypically hyper-conscious, granola-crunchy liberal, more aware of the historical realities than any of the main characters. Her knowledge, however, doesn’t do anything to help her understand other people.
Each of the sections ends in a cliffhanger. What happens to characters in earlier time periods is addressed in later sections somewhat. I kept reading in the hope that I would learn the eventual fates of the main characters. The fact that some things remain mysterious is part of this book’s message about historical accuracy and the lack thereof. The book also left me with the question of whether foreigners (meddling, troublesome foreigners) can ever really understand a place and its people. Some of the secondary characters believe that they know better than Guatemalans how to run the country, much to the sorrow of the main characters. The last of the main characters, Jean, might provide a partial answer. She shows us that, even if we can’t understand, we can at least be compassionate and generous.
Hard Red Spring has given me so much food for thought that I struggled to edit myself down so as not to spoil the entire book. Simply listing out the themes this book explores would not do justice to how the characters wrestle with their consciences—or to the skill of the author for her skill in introducing so many ideas and questions while still creating realistic and tragically flawed characters. All I can say at this point is that Hard Red Spring is astonishing, heart-breaking, and will leave readers with a massive book hangover.
I really want some of my bookish friends to read Hard Red Spring just so that I have someone to talk with.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 29 March 2016.
Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommended for readers who are clueless about Central American history—especially the sort of people who might opine in spite of their lack of knowledge.