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The Day of the Moon
by Graciela Limón

The Day of the Moon

Reviewed by Heather Herbaugh

Graciela Limón creates beautiful, spellbinding novels as she uses Mexican history and culture as a backdrop for her dynamic characters and dramatic plots. She is the author of several works including Song of the Hummingbird, Erased Faces, and In Search of Bernabé, her first novel and winner of a Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award. She is currently a professor of US Latino literature at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

"Among my people, we believe in Xipe Totec, the goddess of healing and life. This is her story: One day an evil spirit of destruction skinned her alive. But Xipe Totec did not die. She put on her skin and was restored to life. "

In her novel, The Day of the Moon, Graciela Limón writes in a sensitive and engaging style that traces the individual lives of a family with a sensitivity and kinship that demands the same from the reader. This is a novel about the dispiriting shackles of unquestioned allegiance to family and tradition that are burdensome and often tragic, especially for those who wish to break with the past and its restraints. Limón follows the Betancourt family through four generations, from the late 18th century to 1965, from Mexico to the United States. Throughout this dramatic shift of people, time, and country, the characters are forced to survive and cope with the actions of the preceding generations while trying to discover their own places within the family and their culture. Meanwhile, each generation seems to have its own secret that causes great harm to those who must live in its wake, until someone in the family can finally uncover the truth and be free of the sadness that follows the Betancourts.

The characters of the novel are steeped in a tradition of unchallenged social boundaries. For example, the cultural separation between les indios, the native tribes of Mexico, and the white descendants of the Spanish colonists is a prevalent theme in the novel. Along with this separation, a power system exists between the native peoples and the white Europeans, often leaving the former as the servants and domestic help of the latter. This power system further entrenches the division between the cultures to such an extreme degree that it is almost never questioned or even mentioned. However, although largely unspoken, this boundary is strict and severe to those who dare to cross it. Many more cultural boundaries are explored in the novel as well, such as sexuality and gender roles. These, too, prove to be dangerous to challenge.

The novel follows different threads of narration by the main characters. It begins in 1965 in Los Angeles with Don Flavio Betancourt, the patriarch of the family and the former patron of the ranch estate, Hacienda Miraflores. Don Flavio's narration is a recollection infused with a nostalgia for time and people now gone, as well as a dread of mysterious crimes he once committed upon these people, and which perhaps he continues to commit. He reminisces about his youth, the cherished ranch he once won in a card game years ago, and most importantly, his beautiful, strong-willed daughter, Isadora. She is absent from Don Flavio's present, and he looks back on his memories of her with a mysterious sadness, "mumbling to his daughter, trying to explain what he had done" (p. 8).

Don Flavio serves not only as the patriarch of the Betancourt family but as the main male character in the novel. He has been significantly influenced by customs of the past and tries desperately to keep them alive. Because of this, he attempts to rule the lives of the women in his family including his sister, Brigida, and his daughter, Isadora. Although both women are strong and defiant of Don Flavio's dominance, he remains unwilling to allow them their freedom in matters such as love. The overthrow of Don Flavio as a tyrannical patriarch becomes the defining struggle of the novel that each new generation must assume.

The story continues from the voice of Don Flavio to the voice of Isadora Betancourt in1939, and later on to Brigida Betancourt, and so on. Limón moves between narrators and through time, weaving the story together and developing in the reader an understanding of the characters. This dynamism not only creates depth and dimension but moves the story at a pace that holds the reader's attention. This novel sympathetically depicts the many trials created by ingrained custom, forbidden loves, and painful lies while creating substantial, worthwhile characters that provoke compassion and hope.

With her unique storytelling ability, Graciela Limón has created a beautiful portrayal of the indomitable spirit of women in The Day of the Moon. Their strength and will to overcome senseless, archaic traditions and grasp at freedom even at the risk of themselves is an emotional and suspenseful struggle that parallels that of the mythical Xipe Totec, who would not die, but rather was restored to life.