Bridal, Tessa. The Tree of Red Stars (Milkweed Editions, 1997). 287
It comes back to what Che was always saying about individual responsibility.
We may lose. We may be tortured. We may die. But there are some of us
who cannot rest while injustice is being done to anyone, anywhere. And
once we know ourselves to be one of that number, then we give up living
according to any rules society can recognize. (229)
Tessa Bridal's personal experiences as a girl
growing up in Uruguay and Brazil must have played an important role in her
decision to write this novel. In addition to her Latin American roots, the
fact that she has lived in London as well as the United States has given
the opportunity to interact with different cultures and worldviews, all
of which play an important role in her historical fiction novel, The
Tree of Red Stars.
In this extensively researched novel, Magdalena,
a young teenager, narrates her fascination with Che Guevara's speeches as
well as her passionate, tragic, and frighteningly realistic involvement
in the struggle for stability and control in 1960s Uruguay. As the book
unfolds, the many factors that made modern Latin America so turbulent reveal
a history of confusion and frustration rooted in European colonialism.
Cultural identity and the remains of Western
European hierarchy are inherent in the characters, who profess their superiority
through their European ancestry. At the very heart of the story is the Uruguayan
way of life, stunningly described through Magdalena's eyes as she attends
quinci–eras and bodas, reflects upon her mother's insistence
on proper behavior, and visits her family's property in the country,
a remnant of the encomienda system. The desire to maintain the criollo
ways of life are juxtaposed by the movement toward autonomy and freedom
from the grip of Western European pre-eminence. As the story delves into
Uruguay's most recent history, the reader is left to ponder the effects
that European settlement had on Latin America.
The Tree of Red Stars is a captivating
novel with fictionalized, but deeply believable personal accounts reflecting
the participants in South America's struggle for stability and peace. While
the focus is mainly the relationships between Uruguay, Brazil, and England,
the novel also addresses the roles played by the United States and Western
Europe. In addition, the novel compares Uruguay's struggles with those of
other Latin American countries by introducing leaders such as Che Guevara
and Salvador Allende.
In examining the definition of freedom and
its implications, the Cold War becomes a central theme as the characters
ponder the practicality of socialism as a means of combating Western control.
The global balance inherent in the relationship between the United States
and Russia during the Cold War is brought into question by the younger characters
in the novel as they wonder if there is more to the story than simply being
on one side or the other.
Historical fiction—and its effectiveness
at illustrating historical themes on a personal level—can be a refreshing
change to the standard curriculum of social studies classrooms. Bridal's
novel would certainly enrich a world history classroom on the high school
or collegiate level during units addressing cross-cultural interactions,
the role of the Catholic Church in modern history, the Rise of the West,
Liberation Theology, and the effects of the Cold War. In addition, Bridal's
novel is a powerful tale for classrooms addressing Latin American Studies,
Women's Studies, and Hispanic Literature.
To see history as a story and not simply a
series of impersonal events is often a powerful experience for students.
The Tree of Red Stars certainly deals with mature subject matter
and would be suitable for high school students at the teacher's discretion.
It also serves as a powerful book for collegiate level classes. Bridal's
novel is smoothly written and she avoids complex and affected wording, providing
a compelling tale that can be read easily by anyone with a ninth grade reading
level or above. The novel introduces a number of characters ranging in age,
gender, personality, and cultural identity, allowing readers to connect
with the family ties and friendships, encouraging an intimate involvement
on the part of the reader.
As a means of enhancing textbook readings
and primary sources dealing with Latin America in the mid to late twentieth
century, Bridal's book is certainly worthwhile. The novel lends itself beautifully
to an interdisciplinary lesson between English and Social Studies departments
since the book is a fine example of literature as well as a wonderful piece
of historical fiction. Discussion questions that ask students to determine
which side they would support if they were characters in the novel would
be an effective means of helping students to identify with historical events,
while encouraging self-examination of their own worldviews. Another assignment
might have students engaging in a mock trial of one of the characters to
determine his or her fate. In a follow-up discussion students might compare
the outcome of the mock trial with that of the trial in the reading, including
a discussion of systems of justice and the concept of a fair trial. An essay
that asks the students to determine whether the book is a realistic account
or a romanticized account would also be a helpful critical thinking assignment,
which would encourage the students to utilize various sources to interpret
the validity of the novel.