“Another Unretired Success”
By Joan Meevoy
Have you discovered Stones for Ibarra, the lovely little novel by Harriet Doerr? Last summer as I was preparing to move to the Lake area, a friend gave me this bittersweet book, hoping that it would discourage me from moving to Mexico. I read it and cried, because it’s that kind of story, but I tried to explain to the friend that Ajijic was not a remote, poverty-stricken village where I would be the only American. Furthermore, I told her that what I had gleaned from the cover notes and publication page had only given me further inspiration to move down here and try to write. Harriet Doerr had not started her career as a writer until she was in her late 60’s. I had a decade to catch up to that and could picture myself writing my first novel in this quiet, pleasant locale.
Ms. Doerr received her B.A. from Stanford University when she was 67 years old. She then participated in their graduate fiction program, winning grants and awards which enabled her to work on this, her first novel. Several chapters were published separately in literary reviews before Stones for Ibarra was published in 1984 and won the prestigious American Book Award when the author was 74 years old.
This little treasure of a book, so poetically phrased, tells the story of an American couple who move to the remote mining town of Ibarra to reopen an abandoned copper mine. The tragedy of Richard and Sarah Everton is fore- shadowed in the first paragraph where we learn that this will not be a “happy-ever after” story, that Richard “will die thirty years sooner than he now imagines.” As we learn bit by bit of his illness and Sarah’s struggle to deal with it, the life of this small Mexican village is poignantly described in careful, loving detail. The two themes are not unrelated, but while the villagers live close so death and accept it as an everyday, matter, Sarah creates fantasies to help her deny it.
The people of Ibarra will never completely understand the Evertons. Some of the villagers peer through the windows of the house and report strange customs: “The señora cooks food from cans over a gasoline fire. It must be very expensive. While she stirs the pot, the señor is in the kitchen. A man in the kitchen and not to eat.” And why are they so frugal as to share one bottle of beer with dinner but so extravagant as to light a fire they do not cook on? They “lit candles at their evening meal and let them burn down while they talked. Occasionally they both talked at once, and loudly. At these times the señor jumped up and walked around the table, and the señora forgot to bring the hard rolls from the oven.” They had been seen and heard by the postmaster’s son, who lived for a winter with his cousin in Chicago and learned some English words. “The señor and the señora do not agree about the next president of the United States. He will vote for one candidate, she for another. In that case, why do they vote at all?”’
The Evertons are equally, bewildered by much that they observe in Ibarra, but gradually deep respect develops between the foreigners and their neighbors. I highly recommend reading or re-reading Stones for Ibarra, not only for its sensitive portrayal of a Mexican village, but as an example of award-winning fiction, written when the author “combed white hair,” as they say in Mexico.