Reviewed by David Mather (Chile 1968-70)
There are several reasons why I was eager to read “?Eres Tu?.” The author and I were both forestry volunteers (different groups) in the mid to late ’60s in Chile. According to the jacket of the book, his time there, like mine, was “the most significant experience of his life.” We both ended up writing “novels” about ‘our’ Chile and both books have a young American fall in love with a campesina who was taller than most, had long black hair, and, of course, beautiful eyes. Even the consummations of the two love affairs are similar in that his takes place in a canelo(tree) grove whereas mine was in an alerce grove. Finally, both of us used the love stories as the vehicle to demonstrate our deep feelings for the country and its people. There, however, the similarities end.
In Chile, back in the ’60s, forestry volunteers were divided into two groups: the “professionals” and the “generalists.” The “professionals” had either a degree in forestry or professional forestry experience. The “generalists,” of which I was one, usually had a liberal arts degree and knew little about forestry. Usually, not always, the “generalists” were located in the campo or small towns whereas the “professionals” worked in government offices in the larger cities. Mr. Tainter had both the right degree as well the experience of a lookout fireman and smokejumper in Montana to qualify as a “professional.” Consequently, he worked at the Instituto Forestal in the capital of Santiago for his two PC years. I, on the other hand, lived and worked with the campesinos in the foothills of the Andes where there was no electricity, no indoor plumbing, and travel was by foot, horse, or oxen. This difference — his technicaI and studied approach and my lack thereof while winging it in the campo — translated into two books that couldn’t be more differently constructed.
Mr. Tainter’s story is about Robert, a young American from Montana, who goes to Chile to study and collect medicinal plants. He meets a family in the campo that has a beautiful daughter named Rosa. Robert saves Rosa’s mother from drowning and Rosa rewards him with sex. Shortly afterwards, Robert leaves Chile because of Vietnam (no occupational deferment!) without knowing he had fathered a girl. He goes to Vietnam where he loses a leg and falls into a six-year coma. Meanwhile we are given multiple snippets of Rosa and her parents’ lives where the author can bring in all sorts of anecdotal information varying from Robinson Crusoe on the Chilean San Fernandez Islands to the brutal years of Pinochet. Ultimately Robert comes out of the coma, reunites with Rosa, meets his daughter, and things look up. I should also include that all the women in Rosa’s family, including her own daughter, have certain powers associated with a shaman. There are apparitions and predictions in the book that cannot be explained otherwise. After tough years and events, things turn out well for Robert, Rosa, and their daughter Paulina.
However, I feel that the story of Robert and Rosa is very much backstage to the prodigious amount of historical fact and supposition, and the technical and cultural information presented. In the first chapter, Robert is formally introduced and the reader is told that he is the main character. We are then told the gist of most of the plot. That is a good thing because we lose sight of the story in Chapter Two (and subsequent chapters) when we are given a history lesson beginning 13,400 years ago when people crossed over from Asia to North America on the Beringian land bridge. Mr. Tainter has a lot to say and the history lesson jumps around. At one point he goes back to the nomadic peoples’ ancestors 80, 000 years ago, then climate conditions 160,000 years ago, then the extinction of the mastodon, followed by the demise of the American buffalo. We are told of the huge importance of the Clovis stone arrowhead which apparently was the cat’s meow for hunting big game like the mastodon. However, unless I missed it, I never learned why it was superior to other arrowheads. At any rate, the author’s purpose is to tell the reader that the people who crossed the land bridge were the ancestors of the Pehuenche natives of south-central Chile where Robert collects medicinal plants and falls in love.
I feel that there are several books here. One only has to read the Table of Contents to realize how much history is presented. The author tries to give it a natural history bent, but you can only do so much if you are listing a multitude of dates and facts and then also scientific information. Through the main character’s passion/business of collecting/processing medicinal plants, there is an abundance of plant pathology making it tough at times (for me, at any rate) to plow through. For example there are three and a half detailed pages about the parasitic misodendrum plant, not including a full-page diagram of its life cycle at the end of the chapter. However, it is only fair to say that the plant does play a role in the story near the end of the book. But, there is a real plethora of plant information. Indeed, at the end of the book there are twenty-six pages of plant drawings listing the medicinal use of each. The author is an emeritus professor of forest pathology and has published over 150 scientific articles. That approach, to me, is more the flavor of this book rather than the story of Robert and Rosa.
Folklore music is another one of the author’s favorite topics. There are pages and pages about the artists, the lyrics, and so on. For example there is a brief history of the life of the very popular Violeta del Carmen Parra Sandoval followed by two and a half pages of translated lyrics. There is also the protest singer Victor Jara with four full pages of translated lyrics. Again, the author tries to link the folklore music to a couple of his characters, but it is peripheral. It is also a bit of a stretch when some Chilean nurses and students just happen to be visiting the U.S.A. and tour Robert’s hospital in Montana. One of the patients they see is Robert who is deep into his six-year coma. For some reason they begin singing Chilean folk songs in his room. As they leave the room Robert’s therapist notices a tear in his eye. Short story shorter, Robert soon comes out of the coma. I do have to say, though, that when the author lists the folklore lyrics of “Si vas para Chile,” it hits home for me as it most likely would do for any Chilean volunteer.
“Eres Tu” is an ambitious work. The “Suggested Additional Reading” in the final pages illustrate just how much effort Mr. Tainter has put in. However, I feel his style is more matter of fact than creative and compelling. I’d personally like to see a more flowing narrative and a less textbook approach. His description of the copihue for example. He gives its Latin name, says it is beautiful and that it is the national flower of Chile. That is all. Why not give it more of a story? Much of “?Eres Tu?” is about the indigenous people, specifically the Pehuenches and Mapuches. Why not work in their myth of the flower’s creation, a ‘Romeo & Julieteque’ story about the Pehuenche prince Copih and the Mapuche princess Hue that also explains why there are two varieties of the flower, red and white?
Finally, I am not a professional book reviewer by any stretch of the imagination. Consequently, reader and author alike, please take all this with a grain of salt. However, years ago I was given some excellent advice. If you write something, have as many people as you can read it before publication. People have different takes, different styles, different likes and dislikes, and will say different things. However, if more than one person says the same thing about your work, then pay attention. Another piece of advice I received was that it is the purpose of a novelist to SHOW, not tell.
David Mather graduated from Bowdoin College in 1968. From 1968-70 he served in the Peace Corps in southern Chile. After returning to the States, he built a homestead in the New Hampshire woods a mile off grid, and eventually started and ran a specialty lumber business for over thirty-five years. In 2011 he published his first novel, One For The Road, which is based on his two years in the Peace Corps. Four novels have followed, another about Chile and three about the Big Bend Area of northern Florida. A fourth novel about Florida, Gator Bait, should be out this summer. All of his novels have been published through Peace Corps Writers.