by Oscar Hijuelos
Courtesy of an advanced reader’s copy (ARC) from Auntie’s Bookstore.
This summer, I started reading the wonderful Jane Austen detective series by Stephanie Barron. I really felt I got to know Jane as a person and I like her a lot! Then I found an ARC featuring the Brontes as characters.
Now, the last work of the late Oscar Hijuelos takes on Mark Twain and explorer Henry Morton Stanley (“Dr. Livingston, I presume?”). Not since Gone With the Wind have I read a gorgeously written book in which I loathed the main character! Stanley is a little man in more ways than one.
I could forgive him his dyspeptic character, his service as a Confederate soldier in the American Civil War and his bitterness*, but NOT his work for King Leopold, opening the way for generations of really horrific human rights abuses in the Congo. Worst of all, he does it from the Victorian perspective of “oh, we’re helping those poor savages by bringing them civilization.” Appalling!
Of course, you can’t un-know what you know. And this is a problem for modern readers.
Mark Twain didn’t escape his dollop of loathing from me. Though personally treating the slaves well, he seems indifferent to the wrongess of the system. He even remarks that if he were to enlist (during the Civil War) he’d probably be on the side of the South, since he’s from Missouri. (What happened to the “Show Me” state? Show me why I should?) Also, he’s a smoker. Ugh.
Why This Book for Cuba?
Oscar Hijuelos is a famous Cuban-American (Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love).
- He worked on this MS for 10 years, and was still revising it when he died.
- Stanley and Twain sail to Havana to look for Stanley’s adoptive father, who has disappeared. They find him on a sugar plantation called Esperanza. Stanley, who started life in a Welsh workhouse as a prostitute’s son, has changed his name from John Rowlands and expects his benefactor, Henry Hope Stanley, to leave him well off when he dies. Unfortunately the elder Stanley procrastinates on making his will, ultimately forcing Stanley the younger to make his own way in the world as an explorer.
Hijuelos, at the peak of his writing power, mingles fact and fiction as skillfully as any Master Chef. The great characters are flawed and yet still lovable–even Stanley has his moments. I actually really liked his mother-in-law, who of course didn’t care much for him. Hijelos guides you skillfully from history and literary moments with gusto.
*What I didn’t know about Stanley’s famous discovery of missing missionary David Livingstone: the jealous Royal Geographic Society accused him of making it up! Since he was still in Africa, and the speed of communication was glacial, it took years plus written affirmations from Livingstone’s two children to clear his name.
I enjoyed this book very much. Well done, Mr. Hijuelos. Well done, sir.
A Last World on the Brontes as Characters
Look for the delicious Worlds of Ink and Shadow by Lena Coakley, due to be published in January 2016…and consider this: are there wicked things not human, which envy human bliss?