When was the last time the characters from a novel jumped into your real-life settings? So that you see them in line at Lotaburger, or praying at the cathedral on their lunch break, or drinking margaritas with co-workers at the Cowgirl?
Albuquerque-born Kirstin Valdez Quade’s new novel grew out of a story from her debut collection Night at the Fiestas, which won the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 award in 2015. In The Five Wounds, Quade eases the reader into a nearby locale: the Española Valley, where five generations of the Padilla family live in the fictional village of Las Penas. But despite the familiarity of the setting, the novel’s intimacy comes mostly from the people in it—they vibrate off the page, reminding you of yourself, someone you know well, or maybe the last person you stood behind in line at Allsup’s.
All families have generational trauma, but the Padillas are particularly afflicted. Quade writes, “Generations of injury chewed like blight into the leaves of the family tree: shaken skulls, knocking teeth, snapped wrists, collisions and brawls and fatal intoxication.” Amadeo Padilla, 33, is struggling with the alcoholism handed down to him by his dead father when his great-uncle, Tío Tíve, brings him into the fold of the local Penitente Brotherhood. He’s buckling down to play Jesus on Good Friday, setting aside beer and praying every day, when his pregnant 15-year-old daughter, Angel, shows up on his doorstep. She’s had a fight with her mother, Marissa, about Marissa’s abusive boyfriend, and she needs a place to live.
Each of the Padillas is seeking a chance at redemption. For Amadeo, that means taking care of his daughter, getting his windshield repair business off the ground and finally becoming a contributing member of his mother Yolanda’s household. Meanwhile, Yolanda is hiding a terminal diagnosis from the rest of the family, trying to keep her secretarial job at the Capitol for as long as possible before she leaves the world with no fuss or fanfare, martyr-style. Angel is attending the Smart Starts! high school continuation program for teen mothers, looking to her Oregon-transplant teacher, Brianna, for guidance in making her way out of heroin-ravaged Española, to college and beyond.
As she chronicles an eventful year in the lives of the Padillas, Quade negotiates the complexities and contradictions of race, class, gender and religion in Northern New Mexico with startlingly clear revelations. Brianna is a well-meaning nonprofit professional who is seemingly devoted to improving the lives of young mothers—until we catch her innermost thoughts, filled with white savior bias and bitterness at the open, lush sexuality of some of her students. Amadeo is furious at his sister for giving him a book called Mastering Ares: Breaking Free from the Prison of Male Rage, but a calamitous windshield repair gone wrong leaves him as helpless as Angel’s new baby. Yolanda is, to her own astonishment, set aflame when the ugliest man at the Cowgirl kisses her neck after a dance. Every person in the novel is hiding a surprise—or several.
The Five Wounds builds a strong empathy with its characters by gently stripping all their false fronts away, revealing a generous, messy, emotional portrait of their humanity. After finishing it, I found myself peering closer at people in grocery stores and restaurants, wondering how exactly each individual negotiates their handed-down wounds at any given moment.
Speaking of redemption—or maybe epiphany—state Sen. Bill O’Neill’s new book of poetry is not your average politician’s publication. In 48 anecdotal free-verse poems, The Definition of Empty details O’Neill’s tales from his years as executive director of the New Mexico Juvenile Parole Board. But, as New Mexico poet laureate Levi Romero writes, “this ain’t no sit-around, clap-your-hands, feel-good poetry.”
O’Neill, an Albuquerque Democrat, doesn’t shy away from what he calls “the visceral and unsubtle stories” of the subjects of the parole board, “which coalesce into their one universal theme of deprivation.” He says in an author’s note the poems are not an attempt to inhabit the voices of the kids he’s encountered, but “a tribute to them and an acknowledgment of the many challenges they face.”
In “Children’s Psychiatric Hospital,” he delicately questions a 14-year-old girl about her violent record before slipping into a raucous empathy: “Let us dance around the pagan fire, celebrating/the pointed stick, the kerosene of what lives/underneath our lives.” In “Our Las Cruces Hearings,” he acknowledges the importance of these youthful lives to his own. “These have become my kids, their destiny is my/diagnosis & in their reflection is an endless succession/of teachings about what we are all brought into, so thoroughly in the salting.”
The withering wit O’Neill wields about political posturing is maybe the most satisfying part of his poetry. In “Easter Sunday” he acknowledges “the amnesia that comes with any titled position.” Other poems poke fun at gubernatorial nepotism, puncture the optimism of fellow poet Mary Oliver, and call out NIMBYs at a housing association meeting. Throughout, O’Neill provides revelatory flashes of his own imperfect humanity in the role of a public servant, writing of “the indignity of hope, the clarity in a simple task survived—/gradually dancing its blessing, the triumph of our witness.”