Don Diego de la Vega was born in Alto California at the end of the 18th century to a Spanish aristocrat, and the daughter of a Shoshone shaman and a Hispanic soldier turned deserter. Diego is raised alongside Bernardo, the son of his Indian wet nurse, and the two milk brothers remain inseparable throughout their lives. Although born into privilege, Diego becomes aware of social injustice at a very early age because of his mestizo blood and his bonds of friendship and brotherhood with Bernardo. European settlers continually perpetrate acts of violence against the Native American population and the two boys are helpless to come to the defense of their people.
The two receive a multi-faceted education. The Shoshone teach them how to hunt and fight like Indian braves. White Owl, the shaman and Diego's grandmother, instructs them in indigenous lore, sends them on individual quests for a vision and their totems, and brings them through the rites of manhood. After a fox saves Diego's life, the small animal, el zorro, becomes his emblematic animal. White Owl tells him, "Zorro is your totemic animal, your spiritual guide. . . You must cultivate its skill, its cleverness, its intelligence." Don Alejandro de la Vega gives his son lessons appropriate to a young Spanish grandee, including fencing, and instructs him about all things necessary to run their enormous rancho. Whatever Diego is taught, he passes on to Bernardo. The first part of the novel is about life and politics in California, Mexico, and Europe during the Napoleonic Wars, along with vignettes of the events and traumas which touch and effect the lives of the boys, and their families, as they move into adolescence.
Diego is sent to Barcelona to receive a noble's education, like that of his Spanish ancestors. Bernardo accompanies him, as a servant, even though he is no such thing. They stay with a close friend of de la Vega's, a Francophile, Tomas de Romeu, who has two daughters, the beautiful Juliana, and the spunky, younger, cross-eyed Isabel. The girls and their duena Nuria, are to play important roles in this tale. All of Spain is under Napoleon's control and the Spanish are rebelling. Guerilla fighters attack the French forces everywhere. Meanwhile, Diego enrolls in the School of Humanities, and is mentored by the famous fencing master, Maestro Manuel Escalante, who literally wrote the definitive manual on the art of swordplay. Escalante recruits Diego into the secret society, Justicia, whose members' are pledged, "To seek justice, nourish the hungry, clothe the naked, protect widows and orphans, give shelter to the stranger and never spill innocent blood." It is in Barcelona that the revolutionary character Zorro is born.
The novel's final chapters deal with the return of Diego, Bernardo, their traveling companions, and Zorro. And in Alto California, Zorro confronts his enemies at last, the homegrown kind and those who have pursued him from abroad.
As always, Isabel Allende's narrative is a delight to read. Her descriptive passages bring to life the local color, sounds and smells of Indian villages, the hacienda, the California countryside, Barcelona, gypsy camps, the sea, and a pirates' island. Her characters brim with life. "Zorro: A Novel" is better than the stuff of legend and a book I highly recommend for an adventure-packed read.
In this telling of the legend, Diego is one-quarter Native, and he's grounded by his Native "milk brother" Bernando. The two are raised by Diego's mother Toypurnia (aka Regina), who favors her Native side and can't get used to married life with her husband, Zorro's father. Diego's grandmother White Owl teaches them her Native values of okahué: honor, justice, respect, dignity, and courage. Diego first gets a sense of injustice when ranchers force Indians off their land and his father refuses to do anything about it.
As the son of a rich landowner, Diego has a personal sense of right and wrong but doesn't think of the systemic abuses of tyranny--at least not initially. His eyes are opened during his travels, when companions tell him of the French Revolution and question the existence of God. He also experiences the benefits of democracy and the evils of slavery in Jean Lafitte's pirate enclave. His rival Rafael Moncada even meets Thomas Jefferson, so he's one degree of separation away from a Founding Father.
The Native aspects
Only a few stereotypes mar this otherwise excellent book. I don't know if the California Natives had a concept called okahué. It's too conveniently similar to the values Zorro adopts as a hero. I'm not sure I've ever heard of a Native culture touting "justice," a concept Europeans traditionally consider more important than Natives.
Allende does a good job of rendering the Spanish-Indian actions, even if her Indians are somewhat generic. But her version of California's Native cultures includes vision quests, totem animals, and medicine wheels. I question whether these things, especially medicine wheels, were ever part of these cultures.
Also, Bernando is too much the faithful Indian sidekick a la Tonto. He suffers a trauma in childhood that renders him mute, so he becomes the strong, silent type who sees everything but says nothing. His character works well enough, but you're aware that he's not a three-dimensional figure like Diego and his friends. Perhaps that's why he disappears for much of the second half of the book.
Despite these qualifications, I'd say Zorro is at least as good as the most respected Native fiction--e.g., The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, The Grass Dancer, and Ceremony. Rob's rating: 8.5 of 10.
P.S. Read here for more reviews of Zorro.
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