When I first saw Isabel Allende’s new book, A Long Petal of the Sea, I thought it was one of the most beautiful titles I’ve ever seen. Come to find out it is from a poem by my very favorite poet, Pablo Neruda. No wonder it’s so beautiful! You can see the shape of Chile on the map below and see why Neruda calls it a long petal. Allende’s historical novel begins in Spain during it’s horrendous civil war in the 1930s’s and ends in Chile in 1994. It is an epic story of the Dalmau family who survived the Spanish Civil War (barely) and thanks to the effort of Pablo Neruda were able to immigrate to Chile. The Dalmau family are fictional characters, but Neruda really does help Spaniards escape the cruelties of Franco by outfitting an old steamer to hold 2000 refugees. Like many of Allende’s books, this is rich in historical detail along with fascinating characters and plots.
The readers will track Victor and Roser from war torn Spain through southern France where many of the Spanish refugees were held in French concentration camps, and some were sent to Nazi Germany as forced labor. I had not been aware of this aspect of the Spanish Civil War. Because Victor was a military doctor and Roser was a classical pianist, Neruda selects them for passage on the SS Winnipeg, his steamer heading to Chile. The couple and their young son, Marcel are able to establish themselves and make a good life until Chile begins to experience civil unrest between right wing conservatives Fascists and the left wing socialists. It feels way too much like Spain to them.
They again immigrate to Venezuela and make an even better life there, but as they begin to age they miss “home” which is Chile, and so they returned only to find life unbearable under dictator Pinochet. Victor finds himself in a camp for political undesirables until he saves the life of the camp leader. It’s just too much. When Franco dies (finally), the couple return to an unrecognizable Spain. Once again, they start over and establish themselves and make a good life.
All along the way, there are lovers, trials, family grief, political unrest, and the wonderful surprises of grace. It is truly an epic tale of human perseverance, grit and motivation. This meaty story will keep the readers totally engaged as they experience the richness of Hispanic (in its historic definition) culture on two different continents. The details of the music, food, religion, and social mores add so much color to this already engrossing story. I closed this book with so much admiration for the characters and for Allende herself.