did not finish: Silver, Sword & Stone: Three Crucibles of the Latin American Story by Marie Arana

Disclosure: I read an advanced reader’s edition.


This was to be a Shelf Awareness review, but I didn’t find enough to appreciate. Silver, Sword & Stone attempts a hugely ambitious project: a history of Latin America (South and Central) across much of human settlement, from pre-European contact through the present. Marie Arana wisely acknowledges that such a comprehensive history is too big a goal (certainly, to achieve in these 366 pages, plus notes), but still she takes on a lot. In her interpretation, three elements make up the chief themes and through-lines for this history. Silver stands in for mineral exploitation of the land and its indigenous peoples: silver, gold, tin, copper, and other metals. Sword represents violence, or rule by the powerful. And Stone is religion. I read parts one and two, so I can’t tell you much about Stone.

There were a few reasons that I quit. For one thing, the writing: Arana has a great fondness for adjectives, sticking one to just about every noun; she is not quite so thorough with adverbs, but it was enough to irk. Many of these modifiers are superlatives: benighted, saintly, and (one of her favorites) brutal. Not only manifest, but ‘very manifest.’ Feeble, irrepressibly genial, hellish, cataclysmic, dire. When everything is absolutely the most ever, the effect of all of it dims. Also, the section on Sword, or the violence that has plagued so much of Latin American history, feels like a judgment on the people of this massive region – both pre- and post-European contact: they are just inclined to violence, to brutal acts, to power and subjugation by force. It made me a little uncomfortable because it’s a negative stereotype that’s too often used against people of Latin American descent (native and white/European, and the inevitable mix of the two). I am also a little uncomfortable arguing against the conclusions here, especially because Arana is herself of Latin American descent, and I am not, and I usually try not to correct people about their own in-group conclusions. This is part of why I didn’t write a review for the Shelf. But here on my blog, I can only say, some of these broad-stroke statements made me uncomfortable.

On the plus side, I appreciate Arana’s strategy for bringing immediacy to this historical work. Each section stars a modern-day Latin American whose experiences represent and make specific some of the broader story she tells. Silver: Leonor Gonzáles picks through rocks on a high Andean peak in Peru, searching for gold, scrabbling a hard living as have generations before her. Sword: Carlos Buergos had a rough childhood in Cuba, was sent by Castro to fight in Angola for the Communists, then imprisoned for butchering horse meat and trying to escape, then sent to Florida as an undesirable. Stone: a priest, although of course I did not read that far. It’s a good plan, and fairly well executed here. Arana’s use of these contemporary characters indeed gives context and immediacy. The history bits can get a little general. She has something of a tendency to repeat herself, restating and rephrasing certain points, sometimes offering different (contradictory) numbers in the second go-round; but these are hopefully errors that will be caught in a final round of edits. Recall, this is a pre-pub reader’s edition. This one had more errors (grammar, usage, punctuation as well as factual contradictions) than I’m accustomed to seeing, but one is supposed to trust that all gets corrected in the final copy.

I think there’s a lot of good research to appreciate here – my copy has nearly 100 pages of notes. Arana has done some good work of interpretation, and she makes some strong arguments about recurring threads in Latin American history. Her use of representative contemporary stories to illuminate larger themes is a wise strategy. But there were some stylistic issues that I couldn’t get past. If anyone gets through the final published version, I would love to hear about it. But this one’s not for me at this time.


(I read two-thirds, so I’ll go for it)
Rating: 4 brutalities.

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