The Last Karankawas by Kimberly Garza

Another very fine one on Liz‘s recommendation.

The Last Karankawas has a lot going for it. And yes, for me personally a significant part of the appeal is personal: it’s set in Galveston, Texas (the beach town nearest my hometown of Houston, so a place where I spent a lot of time growing up), with ventures into the Texas Hill Country (where I lived last in my home state). These familiar locations are really well done (Garza’s bio note says “born in Galveston, raised in Uvalde,” giving her greater cred than my own): detailed, specific, absolutely recognizable. You know I’m a sucker for a strong sense of place in any location, but when that place also feels like home, you can bet this won my heart and gave me some homesickness (also a theme of the novel). So, sense of place and detailed execution of setting are objectives strengths here; my personal connections give me a more subjective love on top of that.

It’s a striking novel, not least in form. It could be considered a novel-in-stories: twelve characters each get chapters in their perspective (some first-person, some close third), plus the first chapter told in that unusual first-person plural “we” voice, by the Filipino-American women of Galveston’s Sacred Heart Catholic Church; one chapter focuses on two characters together. As the following image shows, the story centers on one in particular: Carly Castillo is the heart of the story. (I quibble mildly with this graphic because I think those people who relate to Carly through Jess, or others, should be graphically shown as connecting through those other names. Small issue.) Carly and Jess are the only characters who get more than one chapter’s perspective (and Jess only barely, with a second, very short one). Sometimes the connections back to Carly are tenuous, but they’re there. And the book ends with “A Glossary & Guide for the Uninitiated Traveler” to Galveston, which is a delightful piece of hermit-crab-style formal play, and includes the best definition of “state of Texas” I have ever read – hint: it includes multiple entries, some strikethrough text, “none of the above” and “all of the above.” To return to an earlier point, the evocation of place in all its complications and contradictions is absolutely one of my favorite things in literature.

Carly is born in Galveston to a Filipino immigrant mother and a first-generation Mexican-American father. Both parents leave when she is still small; she is raised by her paternal grandmother. We meet her first when she is a small child through the eyes of the church ladies where her maternal grandmother and mother attended. We know her as a teenager and young adult. Carly and the surrounding, orbiting characters are diverse, appropriate for the setting: Filipino and Mexican immigrants and their descendants, mostly. They work in nursing, in restaurants, on shrimp and oyster boats, or driving buses. They navigate class, race, immigration, family ties and ties to place; many wrestle with the opposing pressures to stay and to leave. The novel’s action comes to a head around 2008’s Hurricane Ike, which is catastrophic for Galveston and life-changing for our characters (and which I remember well in its lesser but still significant effects in Houston). It even visits with Isaac Cline, whom some readers will know from Erik Larson’s book Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History. The title refers to the Karankawa Indians who were native to the Texas Gulf Coast region. Yes: there is a lot going on.

It’s a novel with things to say about many themes – class, race, immigration, family, place, community, coping with disaster – but also an emotionally evocative novel about people and relationships. Detail and voice are gorgeously rendered, including the tricks of bilingual culture. It is beautifully done and I won’t forget it anytime soon. Strongly recommend.


Rating: 9 pitches.

One Response

  1. […] The Last Karankawas, Kimberly Garza – fiction […]

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