Review: Teresa of the New World by Sharman Apt Russell

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Cover for Teresa by Sharman Apt RussellTeresa of the New World tells the story of Teresa, the fictional daughter of the real-life Spanish conquistador, Cabeza de Vaca. As his daughter, she travels with him from her home and family in coastal Texas to the outposts of New Spain. There, her father leaves her behind, unwilling to go home to his Spanish family with a half Native American daughter. When plague strikes the mission, Teresa has to rediscover her connection to the earth, all the while pursued by Plague himself.

Sharman Apt Russell’s novel is a combination of straightforward storytelling—a twelve year old could read this easily—and deep concepts. Teresa talks with (not to) the earth and its inhabitants. She and the horse she finds abandoned by his master have a number of long discussions. The earth is always pleased to hear from her asks for stories and secrets. One strength of Teresa is that the earth’s voice is not a human voice; the earth may say “I like watching people. I like watching what you do.” At the same time, the earth’s response to the prospect of people dying is “They will come back to me…I will still love them.” Earth is loving, but not human.

Plague, too, is not an abstract concept; he is a living being who wants to spread. And he, too has his own, alien point of view, one that borrows of human views at times but is essentially that of a voracious trickster.

Mixed in with this accounts of talking with the earth and evading plague personified is a sober historical account: There really was a Cabeza de Vaca. He really was shipwrecked and spent years traveling back toward Spanish lands. He really was seen as a healer, and he did advocate for better treatment of the Native Americans. The Spanish really did bring plague and set in motion what the book’s cover describes as “a time of apocalypse.”

At times, the two sides, the historical realism and the magical realism, are not as well-balanced as they might be: Teresa’s early contact with the earth is interrupted by a rather long and more historically-oriented time at the Spanish mission during which she thinks of her father but not of her old ties to the life around her. It is only after the plague that the conversations with the earth resume, so that the book is divided into three segments with the middle holding a different flavor than the first and last. This is only a small unevenness, however, in an otherwise well-told tale.

Teresa is a powerful protagonist who has to grow up quickly, from a child, to a kitchen servant, to a mother-figure and protector of others. Unlike many such tales, hers is a largely peaceful process: She is not a warrior-princess out to drive away the Spanish, she is a healer learning how to use those powers to defeat Plague and, ultimately, other ills. In Teresa, recovering from illness and abandonment means learning how to talk with the earth again, how to live in it

There are several lyrical passages about life on and under the earth’s surface and more of the plants and animals around making this a good book to give to a nature-loving, daydreaming child. Adults, too, are likely to find that it unfolds unexpectedly into strange depths.

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