BY MEL FERRAND
Julia Alvarez isn't just writing about saving the world, the title of her new release, but she may be doing just that, one reader at a time. Author of four books of fiction ( including How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies ) , a book of essays, five collections of poetry and five books for children, she has been hailed as a writer '... of rare generosity and courage' by the San Diego Union Tribune.
Her generosity was very apparent during a recent stop in Chicago. In addition to a reading at Women & Children First Bookstore, she was featured at an informal cocktail reception to benefit the Women's Voices Fund, which brings non-profit programming addressing women's interests and concerns to the greater Chicago community. True to form, she visited extensively with each person who asked her to autograph her book, and appeared undaunted by the seemingly endless line of fans. She has an internal warmth that is compelling and a 'human-sized' ego despite her success.
A large percentage of those waiting to talk with her were Latina women who had been personally touched by one or more of her writings. A common fan profile was a woman who had read one or more of Alvarez's books, and then had her mother read it, who then turned around and told all of her sisters to read Alvarez as well. It seemed as if all of them were there to meet Julia. Arriving in the U.S. at age 10, Alvarez said she 'came to the language [ English ] late, but to the writing early. And although she speaks Spanish, she writes in English and relies on translators for the Spanish versions.
During her introduction of Alvarez, Linda Bubon, co-owner of Women & Children First Bookstore, said, 'Her gift is to use history to illuminate the present.' Alvarez explains, 'The seed of my new novel sprouted in a footnote about an 1803 expedition to save the world with the smallpox vaccine. The vaccine carriers were 22 orphan boys, all under the age of nine. I could not stop thinking about these boys.' She further ponders, 'Must civilization always ride on the backs of those least able to defend themselves?'
The novel spans two centuries and features two remarkable heroines. It probes the depths of politics, medicine, activism and love. However, at its core is the true story of Spanish doctor Xavier Balmis and his expedition to free Spain's American colonies from smallpox by way of living vaccine carriers. Alvarez added this final thought: 'Embalmed in storytelling is everything we need to be humane human beings.' As I said—'one reader at a time.'