Reviewer Leita Kaldi Davis worked for the United Nations and UNESCO, for Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Harvard University. She worked with Roma (Gypsies) for fifteen years, became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal at the age of fifty-five, then went on to work for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti for five years. She retired in Florida in 2002. She has written a memoir of Senegal, Roller Skating in the Desert, and is working on a memoir of Haiti.
Last Train from Cuernavaca
by Lucia St. Clair Robson (Venezuela 1964-66)
Forge Books $25.99
Reviewed Leita Kaldi Davis (Senegal 1993—96)
Two very real women, Rosa King, an English widow, and Angelina Jimenez, a Mexican farm girl, inspired the characters of Grace Knight and Angela Sanchez in Lucia’s St. Clair’s fictionalized history, Last Train from Cuernavaca.
During the early 1900s, after the ouster of Porfirio Diaz, Grace runs the elite Colonial Hotel in Cuernavaca, where her guests include future presidents Francisco Madero and Vitoriano Huerta. Angelina, disguised as Lieutenant Angel, joins Emiliano Zapata’s revolution after her family and farm are destroyed by government troops. Robson unfolds an intricate plot that brings Grace and Angel together in common cause trying to save Mexican/Indian peasants. When Grace disappears with Angel, her lover, the irresistible Rico, pursues her through labyrinths of forests, misguided clues, and life-threatening encounters with bandits and rebels. Angel, in the meantime, drops her male disguise to snatch passionate moments with her childhood sweetheart, Antonio, when they are not blowing up trains and sabotaging troops of el gobierno.
I’ve always been intrigued by faded photographs of Zapata, Pancho Villa and Carranza wearing serapes and sombreros, looking defiantly into the camera in local restaurants in Mexico and even on Florida’s Everglades Route 27. I wondered what that history meant to the people who hung the photos, but I felt it would be too “gringa” of me to ask. Reading Robson’s book, I finally perceived the conflicts that destroyed thousands of people in Mexico and continue to affect their descendants. Her historical research is thorough, filled with surprising details such as the role of Pinkerton National Detective Agency who suppressed labor unrest, and facts about the railroads.
Robson lightens what could be a gruesome tale with imaginative vignettes that I enjoyed, but did not quite believe, such as Grace playing rag-time piano, Rico quoting English poets, and passionate encounters that almost had me ripping my bodice.
Robson’s love for Cuernavaca, City of Spring, echoes between her lines. Though the city she writes about and that which exists today are very different, her book makes me want to take a train there and look again at those faded photographs.