Las Soldaderas
Women of the Mexican Revolution
Elena Poniatowska
David Dorado Romo,

(Cinco Punto Press)
If you were a woman, and wanted to help the Revolution, it was best to be with Zapata. The soldiers were always "caballeros." Josefina Bórquez relates how she and four Carrancista friends were detained in Guerrero. When the general arrived in Chilpancingo, Zapata personally delivered them to him. He told his men,

    Stay behind. Nobody goes with me. I want to show the Carrancistas that I fight for the Revolution, not to take possession of their women.

When a sentry asked, "Who goes there?" he responded,


"You're Emiliano Zapata."

"I am."

"Well, I find it strange that you come without protection."

He said of the women, "No one has touched them; I bring them back to you exactly as we found them."

The Centaur of the North was not so gentlemanly, and his opponents were not caballeras, either. In Chihuahua, sixty soldaderas were captured. One of them tried to shoot Villa. "Ladies, who fired that shot?" he asked. No one responded. He tied them up "like stacks of firewood or barrels," ready to set them on fire. "The soldaderas screamed, not out of pain, but out of rage. There were no moans coming out of the women's mouths, only insults. They didn't plead for mercy, instead they threatened an impossible revenge."

    The most blunt, vile and violent insults were heard coming from those piles of women pressed tightly against each other by the ropes. Sixty mouths cursing at once...

After they were afire, "the women never stopped cursing Villa."

    And after the blaze completely covered them, Villa heard a hoarse voice screaming from the pyre: "You dog, son of a bitch! You will die like a dog!"

There are almost fifty photographs from 1910 - 1920 reproduced here. They come from a collection of some 30,000 of the Revolution, and are located in the Fototeca Nacional in Pachuca.

The Secret River
Kate Grenville
In 1807, William Thornhill got shipped off to New South Wales as a convict. He was charged with theft. The poor of London, he says, "were all thieves" --- but instead of being hanged, he ends up in Australia with wife Sal and little else.

He had been a lighterman, living in desperate poverty. In Sidney, he works the boats again, finally saving enough --- with the generosity of another boatman, Thomas Blackwood --- to become his own master. With the Hope, he and Sal scrimp and save and buy up a hundred acres on the River Hawksbury. He thus goes from prison and dirt poverty ("two coals in the fireplace") to being a "man on his estate."

It is a leisurely journey. The sordid details of working the Thames (or the coast of New South Wales) can be captivating, but sometimes we want to stick some coals under Grenville just to get her to move the story along there in Botany Bay. We know that Thomas and Sal are going to make it up the ladder of success, but it takes a long 300 pages for us to get there.

There is one thing to be said for The Secret River, outside of the leisurely story line. It is not only a 19th Century Colonial Success Story, it is also a story of people screwing and being screwed in the process: Thomas' fellow prisoners --- especially his old benefactor Blackwell --- his own family, and, worst of all, the blacks of New South Wales get the treatment. Poverty and prison have made Thornhill a harsh man, and when he and his fellow settlers ambush the neighboring blacks there on the Hawksbury River, it is done with such a cold-blooded casualness that we find ourselves wondering if this is the same upwardly mobile young man we've been rooting for all along. It is and he is and we have here a grisly snapshot of Australia's forgotten frontier wars against the aboriginals.

Grenville's "natives" of New South Wales are right out of Rosseau. They are assured, proud, handsome, alive:

    He saw that they were not simply watching a man dance, as people might sit at the Cherry Gardens and watch folk do a jig. There was a drama alive on their faces. There was a tale that they all knew being told in the language of this dance ... This old fellow is a book, Thornhill thought, and they are reading him.

At one point, Thornhill says to one of them, "There won't be no stopping us ... Pretty soon there won't be nowhere left for your black buggers." It is fortunate for both of them that the young man doesn't understand what is being said and Thornhill doesn't bother to learn the other man's language. The words are darkly prophetic.

--- Emily Ford

A Novel
Adria Bernardi
(Southern Methodist University Press)
Bernardi gives us a bifurcated view of the Martinelli family from their early days in the mountains of northern Italy at the turn of the century, the life of young Egidio and Antenore in the mines of New Mexico before World War One, and, finally, the children and grandchildren in their lives in Chicago in the 1960s.

The passages from the early days are haunting and powerfully evocative. Imola is hired to take a bastard child for adoption to the far-off city of Viareggio. She refuses to leave her own baby behind, so she travels by coach and train for several days. A girl asks, "Why are you traveling with two small babies?"

The nun has warned Imola not to tell the truth, so what can she tell them? "About washing sheets in icy mountain water? Feeding chickens? Wringing their necks and plucking out the feathers one by one and singeing the nubs at the stove?"

She certainly cannot reveal the facts about neighbor Marta, "the baby conceived with who-knows-who ---- everyone has his own speculation, a merchant passing through, a neighbor."

    She cannot tell them how she agreed, for a fee, to take this child down to the seacoast, where he will be taken from her, then carried to a new mother, who right now is pacing back and forth on a gravel road in front of her house, peering down the road.

So what does she say: "These babies are twin princes, sons of one of the Winds. I am not at liberty to say which."

    They were brought up into the mountains for safekeeping. But after careful consideration Signor Wind decided our mountain climate was too harsh for his illustrious offspring. That the people were too rough. So he ordered them to be brought down to the sea, where the climate is temperate.

"You must disguise yourself as a peasant woman to undertake the journey," she was told. "For your trouble, we will give you a sack of gold."

    You shall always be like an aunt to these two princes. When they grow up, they will give you whatever you wish for. Rubies and emeralds. Mountains of food. Sumptuous cloth. All you have to do is deliver them both safely.

The history of Imola, Egidio and Antenore has an elemental power that does grip one. Unfortunately, the tale of Adele, Ray, Desolina, and Rina (and a later Imola), in Chicago, in the 1960s, has neither the pith nor the drive of the earlier story.

When Illness
Goes Public

Celebrity Patients and
How We Look at Medicine

Barron H. Lerner
(Johns Hopkins University Press)
In the old days if you were famous and were sick, or dying, dying of some terrible disease, it was between you, your family, your doctor and your agent. Nowadays, as we all know, if you dare to be famous, your medical secrets are out there on television and on the internet for all to consume with their pizzas and cokes.

Lerner cites Lou Gehrig (ALS) as the "First Modern Patient," along with the photographer Margaret Bourke-White (Parkinson's), John Foster Dulles (cancer) and Rita Hayworth (not alcoholism as most suspected, but Alzheimer's).

He tells --- in his introduction --- of Lance Armstrong, who suffered from cancer but went on "to win sport's most demanding and prestigious race: the Tour de France." "Did Armstrong possess some type of extraordinary qualities that allowed him to beat his cancer?" he wonders. "What did his story say to other people who had the bad luck to get cancer?"

Tales of celebrity illness and non-celebrities taking on the medical profession are the subject of this book. Lerner's introduction begins with Armstrong and then goes back in time to a front page story from 1936, when President Roosevelt's son Franklin was diagnosed with a possibly fatal strep infection. He was cured with a new wonder drug Prontylin (a relatively untried antibiotic). It became front page news throughout the United States, and leads the author to wonder why the story was even on the front page of the New York Times.

    Most important for this book, what impact have such sick celebrities had on Americans struggling to understand and treat their own illnesses?

It occurs to this reader that the question might better be applied not to Franklin Junior ... but the President himself. Was FDR not the first modern "celebrity with illness?" (He had had what was then called "infantile paralysis" --- a disease that robbed him of the ability to walk.)

The news in this case is the non-news: FDR was paralyzed, but the public was made to believe that he had recovered completely. Anyone bold enough to photograph the president struggling to get in or out of his car or on or off the train would lose their film to the Secret Service agents. Public "celebrity" illness was in this case rendered a non-issue.

Despite this lapse, Lerner has put together a relatively interesting book, and the writing is sprightly. The chapters on Lou Gherig and Steve McQueen are more than a little interesting, although one might have reservations about the author's question, "Why did Steve McQueen, a wealthy and prominent actor with access to the best medical treatment in the country, surreptitiously travel to Mexico to pursue therapy from practitioners widely considered as charlatans and frauds?" (Answer: When we are dying, we'll try anything.)

Outside of this, the thirteen stories are instructive if not fascinating.

--- Roxanne Stein, MA
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH