Review of Bruce Stores' The Isthmus

isthmus-140The Isthmus: Stories from Mexico’s Past, 1495–1995
by Bruce Stores (Guatemala 1963–65)
392 pages

Reviewed by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras 1975–77)

IN BRUCE STORES’ SECOND BOOK, he tackled fiction — a tricky craft for anyone since its aim is to entertain. In fact, many who attempt fiction forget this simple rule, Mr. Stores among them.

A serious book about a serious topic, the author attempted to present a five-hundred-year panoramic historical view of an isolated portion of Oaxacan Mexico, an area known for poverty, cruelty and rebellion. This is historical fiction about “natives who have been in continuous struggle for local control.” The book includes eleven vignettes about moments in history, culminating in political activities during the last twenty-five years of the twentieth century: one piece about pre-Colombian history, two about colonial history, two about nineteenth century independence and six about the twentieth century.

It is reported to be a collection of short stories yet the author listed them as chapters (Is this a novel?). Unfortunately, story lines are weak and the dialogue silly. In the very first “chapter” a woman is described in such a way that leads the reader to believe that she is an important character. However, the tale does not accomplish this. In fact, she sounds foolish. At the moment she gives birth she says, “My baby’s coming! My baby’s coming” Then, “Ow. Oow.” The dialogue clunks along without discernible plot via meaningless action. Even the historical descriptions are ludicrous. Given the wealth of printed historical descriptions, it is curious why the author does not appear to have consulted them. For instance, when describing Aztec warriors he stated, “Putting on skins of venerated beasts and painting their bodies served to glorify the warrior’s status.” What animals? If they painted their bodies — how, in what color and manner?

This is a prelude to the style of each piece. Later in the book the author printed long speeches with indented margins as if he were about to cite some bibliographic source (Is this fact or fiction?). He also continually uses dialogue that forces the reader to either grimace or giggle: “I’ve got some personal issues . . . What brings you here?” Worst of all, he used “Elizabethan English” with phrases like “Thou alone would be revered . . .”

In his preface, the author complained that academic studies about this area “do not feel alive” and that such studies were “out of bounds for the average reader.” While I agree that many are written in a specific format and filled with professional jargon, there are a host of magazines that present the same material in journalistic style and common language such as National Geographic, Archaeology News and the Smithsonian to name a few.

If you expect a reviewer to read an entire book, disregard my comments because I failed. I put this book down quickly and only picked it up again due to pangs of guilt. I really wanted to be fair to Mr. Stores who has produced 392 grammatically correct pages.

There are many examples of successful historical fiction, even by foreigners about Latin America. Usually, the works about the distant past sensationalize (Aztec), but sometimes when dealing with the recent past, illuminate (Red Flag for Sunrise). This book does neither.

Maybe this is the humble beginning of a new literary career. Carlos Casteneda began with an academic paper so poorly written that it was never published. As his books progressed, his style improved. This is Stores’ first shot at fiction and he should try again.

Lawrence F. Lihosit is an urban planner and author of eight books and seven pamphlets including history, essays, poetry, short stories, memoirs and travel narratives. His latest book, Peace Corps Chronology; 1961-2010 is available on

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