Rise, Do Not Be Afraid (Ghost Road Press)
By Aaron A. Abeyta
Book Review by Daniel Olivas
Aaron A. Abeyta's debut novel, Rise, Do Not Be Afraid (Ghost Road Press, $15.95 paperback), is a hypnotically lyrical homage to a place and its people decimated by time and change.
The place is Santa Rita, a predominantly Mexican community so tied to the landscape that the people and their terrain seem to be the same. "Santa Rita is very real, a village in northern New Mexico about one mile from the Colorado border," said Abeyta, who lives in Antonito, Colo. "My dad used to take me there when I was a kid. Even as a boy, I thought the place was beautiful and somehow mythical."
The mythical aspects of Santa Rita are readily apparent in Abeyta's novel, which possesses elements of magical realism. Indeed, the Devil himself comes to town to wreak his own special brand of damage to the populace.
But perhaps the Devil is not the most dangerous thing to confront Santa Rita.
Abeyta said he was prompted to write the novel during a return trip to Santa Rita as an adult, "and finding that the road into Santa Rita had been blocked and padlocked, 'no trespassing' signs everywhere."
The town he once knew had been dramatically transformed: "The fact that the place had been bought up by outsiders and that original inhabitants could no longer go there without a key was, honestly, a big wake-up call for me. In the fate of Santa Rita, I began to see parallels with other small towns in New Mexico and southern Colorado."
The novel's structure is not traditional but rather moves freely back and forth in time as it also moves from character to character.
"I wanted the novel to reflect my influences, and those influences are very deeply rooted in the oral tradition," Abeyta said. He trusted the reader to "hear one story from several different people on several different occasions, with the details eventually filling themselves in."
The novel also relies heavily on the Bible and its imagery, particularly with its chapter titles.
"Most of the influence came from the Gospel of Luke," Abeyta said.
"I chose Luke for several reasons, but the most evident was that my abuelita used to tell me that Luke's was a gospel of mercy," he said. "I didn't know what that meant, but as an adult I began to understand."
Though Abeyta relied on friends to read drafts of his novel, the two biggest critics were his wife and mother.
"Their input was invaluable because it allowed me to verify that I was on the right track with people who knew Santa Rita and some of the people that I based characters on," he said.
Abeyta jokes that "having your wife and mom as readers would seem to register about a 0.0 on the objectivity scale, but they were very honest and helped me a lot."
Since the result is a powerful and eloquent elegy to Santa Rita, who can complain?
[This review first appeared in the El Paso Times.]