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Hummingbird House Paperback – April 29, 2000

4.1 out of 5 stars 30 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Kate Banner, an American midwife, heads to Mexico for a three-week visit in the mid-1980s and ends up staying south of the border for eight years. From Mexico she travels first to Nicaragua and then to Guatemala, two nations torn by revolution and sunk in horrific poverty and violence. Along the way, she delivers babies, administers what first aid she can, and becomes involved with a group of activists, most of them from North America. The novel opens in the midst of a hurricane, during which a young pregnant woman goes into labor in a rowboat. Kate successfully delivers the child, but the mother dies soon afterwards. It is this event that starts the wandering midwife thinking about going home at last. When a longtime love affair with an American arms supplier to the Sandinistas goes south, Kate heads to Guatemala where friends have a house for a little rest and some thinking time. All thoughts of Indiana are banished, however, when she meets her fellow lodger, Father Dixie Ryan, a priest who is struggling with his vocation. The two become lovers and decide to open Hummingbird House, a clinic and school for Guatemalan children. Unfortunately, even the best intentions can go disastrously awry, and Kate must experience terrible loss before she can find eventual salvation.

Patricia Henley spent many months traveling the roads her fictional heroine treads, gathering firsthand accounts from refugees, activists, and indigenous people. Though her novel never feels researched, every page bristles with quiet indignation at the political and military atrocities visited upon the innocent. "The maps do not tell you that the forests of Belize and Honduras were cut down to rebuild London after the Great Fires of 1666," Kate muses, sitting in her kitchen in the Guatemalan highlands.

They do not show you the scars of Nicaraguan children who lost their arms and legs when their school bus struck a Contra mine buried in the road. Nor do the maps delineate the precise number of Mayan cornfields soaked in gasoline and set afire by Guatemalan government soldiers. And they cannot tell you the exact words of the sermon given by Oscar Arnulfo Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador, before his murder at his own altar.
Political novels run the risk of becoming polemical; Henley largely avoids this pitfall by concentrating on her characters' personal lives within the context of the extreme circumstances in which they find themselves. Some of her stylistic choices can prove, at times, confusing, such as her liberal use of flashback to flesh out her characters' pasts, and the occasional switch in voice from third person to first. Still, her dark tale is compelling enough to overcome such minor defects, and Hummingbird House, in the end, is an impressive first novel. --Margaret Prior --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

To be strong enough for the path she's chosen, 42-year-old American midwife Kate Banner, the protagonist of this moving novel, must "cut off pieces of her heart." Her three-week visit to Mexico during the 1980s becomes an eight-year Central American sojourn once she witnesses the poverty and war-torn devastation of the people she encounters and decides to help. She delivers babies and administers basic medicine at an makeshift clinic, and travels, passionately but somewhat aimlessly, from Mexico to Nicaragua to Guatemala. She moves through the countrysides both with and without her compadres, a group of mostly North American activists, including the lover who soon leaves her and a priest whose love for Kate makes him question his vows. After experiencing many tragic losses, Kate occasionally wrestles with the notion of returning home to Indiana, but her heart (however assaulted) lies with the native peoples and their struggles. Her sacrifices achieve meaning when a collectively imagined school/clinic for destitute Guatemalan children becomes a very real possibility. And when Hummingbird House is established, Kate is satisfied she has helped make one lasting contribution to a community despite all she has lost, including, she laments, her youth. This first novel by short story writer (The Secret of Cartwheels) and poet (Back Roads) Henley is darkly atmospheric, with fluent dialogue and an assured prose style. Numerous subplots, though clearly heartfelt and informative, sometimes detract from Kate's centrality. The prismatic trajectory of the tale may be deliberate, for the author's message is double-edged: that trying for a better world is necessary, demanding work, but no one can save herself through saving the world. Kate's tale rings true in her realistic conclusion that gross injustice calls for more than merely sorrow, but also rage, sacrifice and the ability to simultaneously love and lose. (Apr.) FYI: A portion of the author's royalties will be donated in support of human rights worldwide.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 325 pages
  • Publisher: MacAdam/Cage Publishing (April 29, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1878448986
  • ISBN-13: 978-1878448989
  • Product Dimensions: 8.1 x 5.3 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,831,198 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
What's not to love about Kate Banner? She is noble, altruistic, intelligent, desirable and driven by service to mankind. She is willing to risk her own safety to help innocent people caught in the cross-fire of revolutions in Guatemala and Nicaragua. She offers medical comfort and guidance and shelter to those who would perish without it. She is the voice of reason and conscience in a part of the world where both appear in short supply. I applaud Patricia Henley for the time she spent in Central America researching this book -- she seems to understand from experience the essence of the cultures there. And it shows in the characters and story line and in the dialogue, which is especially vivid and real. Henley conveys a grasp of her setting amid its turmoil without overtly espousing political positions. I learned nothing much new about Nicaragua, which I have also visited: Henley didn't penetrate deeply into the substance of the conflict between the Contras and Sandinistas or the glorious landscape or the human paradox of Managua, which somewhat disappointed me. But she was able to shed significant new light on the Guatemala situation for me. Despite the intrusive, overwhelming absurdity of man and nature that Kate encounters in Central America, she remains resolute in her service to mankind, which often seems unworthy of such devotion. I deeply respect such noble optimism and integrity. Henley's portrayal of Father Dixie Ryan was excellent: what a wonderful character and so roundly drawn! I was pleased to learn of Henley's inclusion on the short lists for the National Book Award and the New Yorker's Top Book of the Year. The publisher took a well-calculated risk on this work, which is far removed from formulaic New York publishing fare. I look forward to more of such substantive fiction over the most promising literary career of Patricia Henley. Hummingbird House is milagro, a miracle.
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Format: Hardcover
Patricia Henley has woven a most spectacular story in this book. It was difficult at first to find a way into the story -- I was confused and lost for a bit, but I managed to find my way in and unearth the triangle of lives that she builds the story around. Kate Banner is a noble and flawed woman -- and beautiful all the more in dealing with her struggles personally as well as in the treacherous world she choooses to live in. Into her world come a myriad of people -- most notably a priest with questions about his path in life (without compromising his faith and vibrancy) and a young orphan girl, whose impact on Kate changes her entire perspective. This is a book delicately written with such lush images that found myself reading certain passages over and over again. Couple that with human insights so bald, raw, and true that they still haunt me, and there's a beginning of an understanding of just how powerful a book this is. I loved the book when I read it, and as time passed after finishing it, the story stayed with me. I kept remembering it -- kept revisiting it -- kept seeing it. The story itself is wonderful wonderful and complex on its own... it has beauty and horror, love and hate, sense and incredulity, passion and war... its a love story as well as a crusade for humanity -- a story of a cause and an individual fighting to stay on top of the world long enough to make a difference -- a fight for self knowledge and understanding... and underneath it all is a masterwork of language, which lifts this book out of a story and into an experience. Henley's writing is so ripe in language there are phrases you can almost taste when read -- there is so much power in her choice of words that it will haunt you only moments after you've read them.Read more ›
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I believe this novel would impress anyone, especially those who have intimate awareness of the political chaos of Guatemala, Nicaragua and Mexico. However, as discussed in other interviews, it does little to politically penetrate these disturbances. I felt this omission was the genius behind the novel.
It is a very dense book, with subject matter quite complicated and diverse. It was, as other reviewers have noted, somewhat challenging to get into. It was difficult to feel just where the protagonist (Kate Banner, midwife) was going and what exactly motivated her anxiety. But, in the end, I find that given the situation, it is a perfect reflection of where and what was going on. How can plans be made when everything can change overnight?
Meet Kate Banner, in the first chapter delivering a newborn in a boat during the aftermath of a hurricane. The infant lives and the mother unexpectantly dies. After years of giving medical care to the poor, managing women's clinics, daubing in dangerous activist circles, exhausted, unsatisfied in love and mentally bereft, she seriously flirts with going back home to the United States.
It is not a surprise to see her attempts thwarted in just about every way. Friends from the past unveil their secret lives, placing all contacts in peril. The horrors of the Sandinistas and Contras become increasingly obvious to her, and unexpectantly, a helpless orphan toddler latches on to her hand and never lets go. The more she tries to pull away from Central America, the more the people, the history and the turmoil itself hold her fast.
There is joy for Kate, though. In stark contrast to the political environs, there is joy in a new love, joy in the nurturing of her adopted orphan girl, joy in the beautifully described region, fauna and people.
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