Sandra Benitez,
The Weight of All Things
(Hyperion, 2000)

Any government leader with the power to send military advisers to another country should read this book to understand that the dead are more than statistics. The Weight of All Things is based on two actual massacres in March and May of 1980: one at the funeral of a martyred archbishop in San Salvador and another along the Honduran border as hundreds of families, fleeing the horrors of the government and the horrors of the revolutionaries, were gunned down.

Amazingly, The Weight of All Things is a story of hope. The hope and the faith of one 9-year-old boy.

Sandra Benitez, who won numerous awards for her first two novels, A Place Where the Sea Remembers and Bitter Grounds, creates an El Salvador where resilience is necessary, paranoia is healthy and the lush scenery is often splattered with blood. Young Nicolás lives with his grandfather until his mother plucks him from the dangerous hills for a better life with her in the capital city. The first stop for this devout family is the archbishop's funeral, where a bullet pierces the mother's skull, forcing the boy to find his way back to his grandfather's ranch alone. He returns, after only one day away, to find the army bombed his village and the guerrilleros commandeered their two-room shack as a field hospital. They have no choice but to accommodate the revolutionaries, but the army would consider them sympathizers after an inevitable raid. Though the boy and his grandfather never join either side, they are both literally and figuratively caught in the crossfire.

Benitez gives us a suspenseful tale of hope as Nicolás maintains his faith, praying to the Virgin for guidance, and uses his wits to gain freedom and knowledge. Childish innocence yields a potent perspective: Nicolás is fascinated by the gringo doctor's expertise, caring to the young child of the cook, ever watchful of the soldier's nightly habits. We know and care for the individuals, while recognizing the futility of fighting for pieces of mountainside.

The Weight of All Things is a passionate work, one that compels attention and returns to haunt you later. The writing is vibrant and at times gruesome, and I didn't want it to end.

[ by Julie Bowerman ]

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