Review by Katrina Ortega
DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Odilia and her four sisters rival the mythical Odysseus in cleverness and courage as they embark on their own hero’s journey. After finding a drowned man floating in their secret swimming hole along the Rio Grande, the sisters trek across the border to bring the body to the man’s family in Mexico. But returning home turns into an odyssey of their own.
Outsmarting mythical creatures, and with the supernatural aid of spectral La Llorona via a magical earring, Odilia and her little sisters make their way along a road of trials to make it to their long-lost grandmother’s house. Along the way, they must defeat a witch and her Evil Trinity: a wily warlock, a coven of vicious half-human barn owls, and the bloodthirsty chupacabras that prey on livestock. Can these fantastic trials prepare Odilia and her sisters for what happens when they face their final test, returning home to the real world, where goddesses and ghosts can no longer help them?
Now in Spanish and translated by David Bowles, the award-winning El verano de las mariposas is not just a magical Mexican American retelling of The Odyssey, it is a celebration of sisterhood and maternal love.
MY TWO CENTS: El Verano de las Mariposas, by Guadalupe Garcia McCall and translated by David Bowles, was originally published in English in 2015 under the title Summer of the Mariposas. Bowles’s Spanish translation came out in March 2018. The content of the book itself has already been spoken on in the review written for the original publication (which you can find here!), so I won’t spend much time on that. I will say that, while this was not my favorite book by Garcia McCall, it was a wonderfully written book and I did appreciate the Spanish translation that I read (which I’ll explain a bit more further down).
First, though, there were a couple of issues that I had with this book. I thought that much of the plot was too far-fetched, even for a book filled with magical realism. This may have stemmed from my recurring frustration with the dynamics between Odilia, the oldest sister, and her four younger siblings. While one should recognize that Odilia is only 15, and that she and her sisters are going through a considerable amount of family stress and anxiety, the order and arrangements of this sisterhood were bothersome to me.
It was made very clear at the beginning of the book that Odilia had largely been playing the part of caretaker for her sisters since their father had left. Her mother emphasized this when Odilia makes a poorly-advised visit to her mother’s workplace. Even still, there were a number of situations where one of the four younger sisters commandeered control of a situation and were determined to do what they (whichever younger sister) wanted to do. This was in direct contradiction to what I felt the philosophy of the sisters’ mantra (“¡Cinco hermanitas, juntas para siempre, pase lo que pase!”). At different times throughout the story, this happened with every single sister. At times, they were almost killed simply because they would not follow Odilia’s lead. At those moments, the younger sisters seemed to be concerned only with their desires, forgetting the ultimate goal of the expedition and even the pledge of togetherness that they supposedly held dear. Seeing this recur throughout the book made the central focus of the story, the bond between the sisters and the theme of family, feel very ingenuine.
Apart from that, though, Garcia McCall has a wonderful way of putting words together that make a story, including this one, come alive. The language that she uses creates very vivid imagery, and brings to life the characters, setting, and action in a wonderful way. Even still, there are many interesting things that have been pointed out about the Spanish translation of this novel. Many native Spanish speakers have observed that the language seems strange, as it’s been translated almost word-for-word and the English sentence structure and phrasing often sounds weird. The exact translations of English idioms into Spanish might be surprising, or sound unusual. It has been pointed out that many of the English idioms are said differently in Spanish and have much more commonly used Spanish variations.
I believe that these are all valid points, but it is also my understanding that Mr. Bowles’s intent was to offer a translation of the book that reached beyond the audience of native Spanish speakers. I believe myself to be an example of the population for whom he may have written a translation like this. I grew up and lived most of my life on the border of Texas and Mexico (I could walk from my house and cross the international bridge to Ciudad Juárez in about 30 minutes). Even still, I am not a native Spanish speaker, or reader, for that matter. I solidified my Spanish reading skills while in high school and college. By the time I could speak Spanish fluently, most, if not all, of the English idioms found in Garcia McCall’s original manuscript were already solidified in my mind. As I was reading through the Spanish translation, my mind pretty easily translated the Spanish words into the English idioms and sayings.
But for readers like me, and for readers who have been speaking English for a good amount of time, many of the phrases that Garcia McCall uses to illustrate how the Garza sisters would speak sound perfectly normal, even in Spanish, because it’s recognizable as Border language. It often sounds exactly the way that Spanish is spoken around border cities because there is a rich mix of English and Spanish combined to create an entirely new dialect. Is it perfect? No, not always. Is it understandable by those who do not come from the area? Most likely. Language is fluid and ever-changing. I found it commendable of both Garcia McCall and Bowles that they kept the characters, setting, and language from the Borderland, the part of the world I’m from, as genuine as they could.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from Lee & Low Books): Guadalupe Garcia McCall was born in Mexico and moved to Texas as a young girl, keeping close ties with family on both sides of the border. Trained in Theater Arts and English, she now teaches English/Language Arts at a junior high school. Her poems for adults have appeared in more than twenty literary journals. McCall is an up-and-coming talent whose debut YA novel, Under the Mesquite, won the Pura Belpré Award and was named a Morris Award finalist. McCall lives with her husband and their three sons in the San Antonio, Texas, area. You can find her online at guadalupegarciamccall.com.
ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR: A Mexican-American author from deep South Texas, David Bowles is an assistant professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Recipient of awards from the American Library Association, Texas Institute of Letters and Texas Associated Press, he has written a dozen or so books, including Flower, Song, Dance: Aztec and Mayan Poetry, the critically acclaimed Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky: Mexican Myths, and They Call Me Güero: A Border Kid’s Poems. In 2019, Penguin will publish The Chupacabras of the Rio Grande, co-written with Adam Gidwitz, and Tu Books will release his steampunk graphic novel Clockwork Curandera. His work has also appeared in multiple venues such as Journal of Children’s Literature, Rattle, Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Nightmare, Asymptote, Translation Review, Metamorphoses, Huizache, Eye to the Telescope, and Southwestern American Literature. In April 2017, David was inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters for his literary work.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Katrina Ortega (M.L.I.S.) is the Young Adult Librarian at the Hamilton Grange Branch of the New York Public Library. Originally from El Paso, Texas, she has lived in New York City for six years. She is a strong advocate of continuing education (in all of its forms) and is very interested in learning new ways that public libraries can provide higher education to all. She is also very interested in working with non-traditional communities in the library, particularly incarcerated and homeless populations. While pursuing her own higher education, she received two Bachelors of Arts degrees (in English and in History), a Masters of Arts in English, and a Masters of Library and Information Sciences. Katrina loves reading most anything, but particularly loves literary fiction, YA novels, and any type of graphic novel or comic. She’s also an Anglophile when it comes to film and TV, and is a sucker for British period pieces. In her free time, if she’s not reading, Katrina loves to walk around New York, looking for good places to eat.