Mostly set in New Mexico, the ten short stories in Kirsten Valdez Quade’s new book capture mesmerizing glimpses at the lives of outsiders. From deadbeat dads trying to make amends, to girls coming of age, to many a character trying to navigate race/class lines, the stories in this collection are heavily infused with Catholic, Mexican American, and New Mexican culture.
In the first story, “Nemecia,” a young girl’s life is completely turned upside down when her orphaned, emotionally manipulative cousin comes to live with them. The girl is moving in under violent circumstances: she was present when her mother and grandfather were both murdered. The girl is sweet and vulnerable around adults but can be cruel to her little cousin when no one is looking, going so far as to claim she was the murderer. It becomes clearer and clearer to the young girl which child is the more important one in their family.
In “The Five Wounds,” Amadeo Padilla is proud to be Jesus in that year’s recreation of the Passion. It’s a bloody event where he’ll have to carry a heavy cross and suffer as Jesus did, but Amadeo is eager to prove his machismo. The unannounced arrival of his pregnant teen daughter — whom he doesn’t have much of a relationship with — throws him off guard, and over the next couple of days, things happen that will become a much heavier symbolic cross for him to bear. This story was one of my favorites in the collection.
Characters in other stories struggle with their place in society. In “Jubilee,” for instance, a woman named Andrea is home from Stanford to attend a party her parents were invited to. Her father, a longtime field laborer for the wealthy Lowell family, was invited to serve food from his taco truck. Andrea is simmering with rage at the perceived slight and decides to attend the party. She has her sight set on Parker Lowell, who is Andrea’s age and also attends Stanford:
Andrea had imagined cornering Parker near the truck, plying her with tacos, which Parker, too polite to refuse, would choke down in class-conscious misery until she was sick. Absurd and far-fetched, yes, but Andrea had gotten a grim pleasure from the image.
The thing is, Andrea doesn’t really understand what’s eating at her; wealth gap aside, the Lowells have always treated her and her family with kindness. That confusion, unfortunately, doesn’t stop her from lashing out.
Night at the Fiestas is a lovely, haunting, sometimes violent book. I loved that it included several strong Latina characters who, if not turned machismo on its head, at least forced the men in their lives to confront their past actions. It’s one of the strongest short story collections I’ve read in a long time.
Night at the Fiestas: Stories was released on March 23, 2015 by W. W. Norton & Company.