Conquistadora is many vivid things all at once, and for the reader, they happen in your body, imagination and soul. It’s a swashbuckling adventure, visceral and ardent; it’s a historical novel so seamlessly told that you don’t realize your heart’s pounding even as your brain’s amassing a wealth of fascinating new knowledge. This is a book that is like that one small island you’ve been longing for since the great adventure and pirate stories of childhood. But the island is real, and this novel tells a real story--an important piece of history--that has never been told before. It’s a story about Puerto Rico, Esmeralda Santiago’s birthplace, and it shows us the island in a way that we’ve never seen before.
Here also is a portrait of characters I came to know and to care about, far from the usual New World stock cast of rapacious and greedy Spanish plantation owners chasing after slave and Creole girls. I was especially intrigued from the start by Ana, whom we first meet as a teenager in a convent in Seville in 1826, bent over the yellowing pages of some journals. (I have an established proclivity for historical novels that begin in convents!) Ana’s story, as every feisty convent girl’s life story should, begins and ends with rebellion: those journals belong to an ancestor of hers who journeyed to Puerto Rico with Ponce de Leon, and when Ana travels there just after her eighteenth birthday, she is a señorita de buena familia rebelling against expectations--of her class, her gender, and the time period. By 1865, she’s rich: a wealthy plantation owner on the island. She’s lost none of her fire. But when the slaves on whom her sugarcane business was built catch the winds of change when Lincoln is elected in the US, she may lose it all. In the decades in between, Ana loves and loses, and finds her true home and her destiny. Puerto Rico, like many tropical “paradises,” turns out to be not the fantasy she’d dreamed on, but a harsh land with harsh realities--a place that rewards only the toughest. The surprising Ana is an irresistible heroine despite the history she carries. She is a woman of her time, for good or ill. A woman who by the end of this sweeping story, comes to define her life not just by all that she has conquered but also all that she has lost. Most importantly, she lives in the reader’s imagination.
Conquistadora is a novel that surpassed my every expectation. It brings a hitherto unknown swath of history alive through great storytelling and narrative verve.
Esmeralda Santiago has written a brilliant and blazingly alive novel, as engrossing and just plain fun as any I have read in a long while.
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Extraordinary . . . a historical novel set in 19th Puerto Rico, featuring a high-handed, strong-willed woman determined to escape her boring upper-class future in Spain. When twin brothers inherit a sugar plantation in Puerto Rico, Ana marries them (who can tell them apart?), and they embark on what for the brothers is a lark, but for Ana is serious business. From the start, she takes to the land and the work of processing cane in the Caribbean, keeping the slaves inherited with the property and adding to their number over the years. She becomes the very image of a conquering hero: implacable, outspoken, demanding. Her husbands languish and fade while Ana runs Hacienda los Gemelos without their help. The issues of social caste, slavery, and sex roles make this a fascinating read. It’s an outstanding story, full of pathos, tropical sensuality, and violence&...