Ultima came to stay with us the summer I was almost seven. When she came the beauty of the llano unfolded before my eyes, and the gurgling waters of the river sang to the hum of the turning earth. The magical time of childhood stood still, and the pulse of the living earth pressed its mystery into my living blood. She took my hand, and the silent, magic powers she possessed made beauty from the raw, sun-baked llano, the green river valley, and the blue bowl which was the white sun's home. My bare feet felt the throbbing earth and my body trembled with excitement. Time stood still, and it shared with me all that had been, and all that was to come. (p. 1)
Summary: Antonio is growing up in Las Pasturas, a New Mexican town with old roots that is in the process of being torn apart in slow motion by the Second World War. His mother is a Luna, from the founding families of Las Pasturas, an agricultural family living a life of the earth, a life centered on homely hearth and priestly altar, structured in time by the dual clock of the lunar agricultural cycle and the liturgical year. His father is a Márez, a wild vaquero family, a people of the wind whose way is to live free on the grass-sea of the llano. It is a discordant pairing, and creates the first problem that Antonio must navigate as he grows up, how to be a child of both.
Las Pasturas is a Hispanic community, very Catholic in the loosely catechized and purely pragmatic and not always happy way that small Catholic towns often are. Christ and the Virgin hear prayers; in confession sins are forgiven; in communion you join with God; confirmation is the mark of becoming an adult; the priest can exorcise devils with holy water and the Church buries the dead on holy ground that souls might rest; as for anything else, it's left in a murky confusion about which most people are thoroughly incurious.The Church is part of the landscape; it is undeniably important, but it is important almost entirely by being there, like the earth, like the wind, like the unstopping tale of time, something that all have to take into account and that very few try ever to understand beyond what is required for living in the landscape. Antonio, however, we find to have the destiny of a learned man, and he has a thirst for explanation that is not so easily satisfied, and he faces the problem any such person will have in such a community: endless questions and no real answers.
Las Pasturas also has old roots, and the Spanish when they arrived found contact with Indians, Pueblo and Comanche, and the local culture still has memories stretching back to pagan days. The town is in a curious location, surrounded by water, with its one dry side actually stretching over an underground lake, and the local god, a great golden carp, is still remembered. One of the key events of the tale is when Antonio is shown the great golden carp and revels in its beauty; it is what he expects an experience of a god to be, unlike what he seems to have when he takes his first communion. This is the second discordant pairing Antonio must navigate as he matures: his heritage includes the almost overwhelming, and stern, and utterly mysterious, landmark of God's Church but also the beauty and thrill of the god of the waters whom one can see. But between God and god it seems that nothing but a forced choice is possible; Antonio spends much of the book struggling between his admiration of the golden carp and his guilty feeling that it is a sin.
Antonio does not fully manage to come up with a solution to either of these dilemmas -- in a sense, the solution will just be the kind of life he eventually leads, because neither is the sort of problem that can be solved by a young man once and for all -- but he is able to begin his way because of Ultima, the curandera, who understands the local families and who somehow lives in such a way as to bridge some of the gap, preserving old ways but blessing in the name of the Holy Trinity. Antonio sees this play out in a great shamanic battle of good against evil, as Ultima uses her curandería to fight the selfish malice of the local witches, with their brujería. It is a community that has no doubt whatsoever that there are curses and witchcraft and devilry and ghosts; there are too many strange events and it is too easy to find malice that is almost inhuman and, whether it has power or not, has an insatiable thirst for meddling with the ordinary harmony of things. Ultima saves one of Antonio's uncles from a curse by the daughters of Tenorio, and breaks her normal rule of non-involvement to face down Tenorio and his daughters, turning their own cursing against them. As the daughters of Tenorio die, Tenorio himself becomes more and more malicious and willing to commit evil, stirring up a literal mob with torches against Ultima as a witch, trying to get his revenge on anyone he can.
One of the things that the novel does well is capture the New Mexican landscape as a real character of the story. There is a reason New Mexico has as its sobriquet, the Land of Enchantment. The land itself interacts with you. I remember it well, swimming in the Pecos River, looking out the car window at a thunderstorm in the distance, racing and crackling like a thing alive, looking down on the world from the Sandia Mountains. It is a land of beauties and sublimities, which are just one step away from magic and divinity. You are not surprised to hear stories of ghosts and curses and saints and strange mental affinities; take them as tricks of the mind or not, strange things happen in the Land of Enchantment, where mountains and deserts and plains can all come together and lend each other incongruous properties, where the land is not quite like any other in the world.
Ultima does not provide Antonio with answers to all or even most of his doubts and questions, but she does provide one very crucial thing: a clear demonstration that good is in the world and that it can always overcome evil. The world is a world in which soldiers can be so traumatized in the war that they are never again right in the head, in which people can be malicious just for being malicious, in which people decent enough when things are normal can be stirred up as mobs when they no longer understand what is happening, in which sickness and death are around every corner. Good exists, however, and life is worth loving. If it comes to a struggle between evil and good, good can always win. But it is not a minor matter. There is also always a cost.
"Are you afraid?" she asked in turn. She put her bowl aside and stared into my eyes.
"No," I said.
"I will tell you why," she smiled. "It is because good is always stronger than evil. Always remember that, Antonio. The smallest bit of good can stand against all the powers of evil in the world and it will emerge triumphant. There is no need to fear men like Tenorio." (p. 98)
Rudolfo Anaya, Bless Me, Ultima, Grand Central Publishing (New York: 1999).