By Elizabeth Wroten
Middle Grade Review: Ma Llorona by Maya Gonzalez
On 31, Oct 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: In times filled with terror and torment, one woman’s haunting grief rises from beyond to become the people’s howl in the dark. Sometimes a heartache is so great, it belongs to everyone. Sometimes a healing is so powerful it holds within it the spark to change everything….if we’re ready. A queer reclamation of the classic Mexican ghost story, La Llorona, spanning from MesoAmerica 1500 to present day San Francisco.
I have liked every book I have gotten my hands on from Reflection Press, but this one was just beautiful. I do not think I will be able to do it justice in describing and reviewing it, but here goes.
It’s definitely a ghost story, but not in the way I have typically thought of ghost stories. There is no creep factor, no horror (except for the horror of genocide which is touched on but not dwelt on and isn’t really the focus of the ghost part of this story), and it’s probably not the La Llorona you’ve heard of.
At its heart, Ma Llorona is a love story. Texocamiltic and Cualtzin live in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica where the two women fall in love and are planning a life together. But just as Cualtzin embarks on her last journey with her cohort of warriors, Texocamiltic is raped by a “pale man”, who the reader recognizes as the first wave of colonizers. In the absence of her Love and broken by the trauma, Texocamiltic transforms into Chocatiuh, a weeping woman, has twins and ultimately is drawn into the river with the babies where they all drown. Time passes and she returns as a blue light, tied to the river. Eventually she meets Cualtzin as an old woman who encourages her to explore the world using the rivers as passage. She spends the next centuries exploring, sleeping, and seeking out Cualtzin on the other side. Centuries later she meets a girl in San Francisco and her spirit helps Xochitl find her voice to help others still impacted by colonization and oppression.
While love is certainly a piece of this story, it is not the syrupy commercialized love we tend to think of or see portrayed in romance novels. This is a love across time, between women, but also between the universe, the land, and the people. People who were and are brutalized and marginalized. The love and love story do not end or even completely revolve around the self-absorbed love between to people infatuated with one another (not that Texocamiltic and Cualtzin are).
This book is perfect for showing readers that love doesn’t necessarily mean pining away for your soulmate or spending eternity lamenting the life you didn’t get together. It shows how many forms love can take and how true love between people can empower one person to go beyond themselves even when they are not physically alive. While Texocamiltic is heart broken over the loss of the life she thought she would have with Cualtzin, she doesn’t spend eternity mourning that. They do get a love scene, but it’s ancillary to the rest of the story of how they go into the world with their love for each other. The story also shows how folklore/mythology can be a powerful tool in activism. How it lends hope and light in dark times, brings comfort when things are bleak, and keeps community alive when white supremacy is trying to eradicate it.
Gonzalez is also clearly a poet as the language in the book is so poetically beautiful. She isn’t wordy, but you see the story, characters, and world so clearly through her use of language. The spare passages bring to mind such rich detail. It’s a book you will want to re-read passages from just to roll the words around in your mind feeling their textures and exploring their layers.
This is definitely a YA novel, but I do believe you could have it in a middle school library. Just know the story starts with an off-page rape followed by a suicide. I personally don’t have a problem talking about those things in age-appropriate terms with younger kids (my own, specifically), but your mileage may vary depending on your community. Don’t let the fear of parents or complaints deter you, but also know its in here. Do put this book on your shelves. Hand sell it to kids who like history, light romance, mythology/ghost stories, or are budding activists. It is also fairly short and a quick read so reluctant readers, who may struggle with mechanics, language, or have struggled to find themselves reflected in pages of books, will have no problem jumping in and connecting. Be sure to have copies in the classroom and on school library shelves. I would even suggest using this as a book to study in English class. Ditch one of those books written by a white man for this beautiful, rich ghosty-love story.
Final note: If you do purchase this book, please post a review of it on Amazon. This will help other folks find the book and know that it’s worth purchasing. If you use any other book services like GoodReads or your local library’s online catalog be sure to post a review there too! And if your local library doesn’t have a copy, request that they purchase one.