Review: The Queen of Water

The Queen of Water by Laura Resau and Maria Virginia Farinango. Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: At age seven, Virginia, an indigenas living in an Andean village in Ecuador, is taken from her family to be a servant of a mestizo couple. Her parents, poor tenant farmers, are to be paid for her services; she is supposed to visit them, as her older sister, twelve year old Matilde, does.

Instead, Virginia is told she is a stupid, called a longo, told she can expect no more than a life of servitude. She is told her parents don’t want her. Virginia at seven, at eleven, at thirteen, at fifteen, tries to figure out her place in the world. She stops speaking her native Quichua and becomes fluent in Spanish; she stops wearing an anaco, preferring the clothes of mestizos. Is her future that of a servant? Is it in her parents’ one room house?

The Good: Amazing.

It would be easy to say that The Queen of Water breaks your heart; when a seven year old is taken from a family and shown a dirty rug to sleep on. When she realizes her parents aren’t going to bring her home. The first time she is hit. The second time. When her desire to learn to read is mocked. When the person she trusts betrays her. When she realizes that she is caught between two cultures, without a home.

Virginia doesn’t want your pity. She doesn’t want to break your heart. A stubborn child, she uses that willfulness to adapt, to learn, to grow despite all obstacles, even when those obstacles are her own fears and insecurities. This is a story of triumph, of hope, of finding one own’s way, and being true to oneself. Being true to oneself is never easy, because first you have to know yourself. How can you know yourself when your parents give you away? When the world you live in and is told is “good” labels you and your heritage “bad”, “stupid,” “ugly”?

What should break your heart is that the couple Virginia lives with, educated, intelligent people, see nothing wrong with taking a child from her home and expecting her to watch an infant and clean a house. Nothing wrong with not paying her or her family. And even though some are upset at the beatings she gets, the beatings go on. Police aren’t called. Her servitude is viewed as normal, natural, expected. Virginia doesn’t have to just escape a situation, she has to escape a world view that is all around her. How she does that, how she manages to find balance, is a stunning story.

ARGH. You know what is so frustrating? Wanting to say so much about this book, and Virginia, and her journey — and finding all I’m doing, really, is listing scenes from books and that really doesn’t help you. So what I’ll say instead is The Queen of Water, set in Ecuador in the 1980s, offers a wonderful defense of television and the powerful, positive impact in can have on a person. No, really. Virginia watches MacGuyver, and her daydreams about meeting MacGuyver give her much more than a fantasy to get through rough times. It gives her a role model, of a person who uses brains to succeed; and it gives her a story where it always works out, giving her the hope that her story, too, will work out. It shows that people find inspiration in many places, and that should be respected.

Note the co-author’s name: Maria Virginia Farinango. Yes, she is “Virginia.” This is a fictionalized account of Farinango’s childhood and adolescence, the result of a six year collaboration between Resau and Farinango. Notes and the author’s website explain more. Sometimes, a true story is best told as fiction — it allows the writers to shape the story, much as Laura Ingalls Wilder, Sydney Taylor or Maud Hart Lovelace did. Resau’s writing partnership with Farinango is a model for authors writing outside their culture: one of respect, of honesty, and cooperation.

Add this to my list of Favorite Books Read in 2011.