Luis Alberto Urrea poured 20 years of research into studying the life of his great-aunt, a Mexican folk healer revered as a saint before she was driven into exile. Queen Of America, his second novel to address the woman called “the saint of Cabora,” elevates a cast of primarily Western stereotypes with the luminous mystery she represents.
Where his earlier novel, The Hummingbird’s Daughter, followed Teresa Urrea’s upbringing in the Mexican countryside and her medical education, Queen Of America picks up with crowds gathering outside her house, begging for an audience. After a brush with death, Teresita has become a cult figure, but also a “person of interest” to two governments, after a number of rebel groups challenging the Mexican president’s authoritarian grip adopt her as their mascot. The saint of Cabora has an uncanny ability to heal the sick, but Teresita at 15 can’t protect herself from the canny manipulators who surround her, and upon her banishment from Mexico, she and her father Tomás, a successful rancher, wind up wandering among the frontier towns of Arizona and New Mexico, stopping where they can make friends so Teresa may receive the faithful (and add to her legend) before she gets run out of town again.
Urrea’s ability to inhabit and enumerate his protagonist’s flights of fancy while holding her at arm’s length enriches the often-hokey turns the Urreas’ trip takes, blunting more obvious setpieces, like their first baseball game. Throwing Teresita’s seriousness of purpose into sharp relief with her surroundings and her age, Urrea undercuts her declarations just enough to save her from being an annoying know-it-all. As to whether her talents extend beyond a working knowledge of herbs to the supernatural, Urrea leaves the question tantalizingly open.
When Teresita decides to leave the Southwest and her father for good, Queen Of America slips the obligatory speculation surrounding her “miracles” in favor of briefer but more evocative glimpses into the turn-of-the century homes of the people she treats, saving the book from the draining effects of a farcical subplot involving Tomás and his re-establishment in America, including the much younger second wife who comes to join him. That’s also where Teresita’s naïveté starts to look like willful refusal to deal with the legacy she’s picked out for herself, and her descent is pressed to counterbalance her rise. Still, the legend the book orbits is protected by Urrea’s specific, startling language, which shines through each more sordid reality he forces his supposedly divine figure to face.