Luis Alberto Urrea spent some 26 years on Queen of America (Little, Brown and Company, 496 pages, $25.99). The novel is understandably precious to the Mexican-American author as it borrows heavily from the exploits of Teresita Urrea, his great-aunt. Teresita supposedly possessed spiritual healing powers, earning her a national reputation in Mexico and the title "Saint of Cabora" from the indigenous people whose cause she championed against a regime that sought her assassination.
Queen of America finishes what Urrea began with 2006's The Hummingbird's Daughter, continuing his fictionalized retelling of Teresita's years as a young adult exiled from her beloved homeland by Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz following a bloody revolt she helped inspire. Under the watchful protection of her ornery, sharpshooting father Don Tomás, Teresita works her way from El Paso to San Francisco, St. Louis and then New York City.
It's a long journey, and Urrea spares no detail while brilliantly blending actual events with a well-crafted narrative of his own creation. Urrea excels at enveloping the reader in the minute customs associated with life in the American Southwest in the 1890s, effortlessly placing readers in the sweltering, cavernous Arizona desert: "Southwest of it, the tormented and mysterious Yaqui mountains, and to its north the vast wall of the red and saffron Frog Mountain, the complex of peaks and canyons that sealed Tucson off to the rest of the world."
Queen of America focuses on the evolution of Teresita's healing powers and her blossoming celebrity, an evolution that finds her embracing her newfound fame on a healing tour of America. Teresita is the obvious focus of the novel, and Urrea succeeds in rendering her an engaging protagonist. We watch her transform from the humble, 19-year-old Indian girl with magical powers into a faith-healing celebrity. We rejoice with her when she finds love; we are devastated when that love dissipates. This all follows Urrea's resolute literary style—part magical realism, part Southwest frontier diary and part traditional coming-of-age story.
Within that tale of transformation lies a gripping, coherent narrative that's obviously the product of painstaking research. Urrea leaves out no detail in his descriptive prose, a meticulous technique that helps the reader delve all the more intensely into the characters and their environment. Luis Alberto Urrea's noble efforts at reimagining the story of his saintly great-aunt manage to enlighten and entertain. The 26 years were time well spent.
GO: Luis Alberto Urrea appears at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Wednesday, Dec. 7. Free.