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The Life and Death of Little Jo by Robert…
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The Life and Death of Little Jo

by Robert Bright

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ROBERT BRIGHT is a Bostonian refugee to the wider horizons of Taos, New Mexico, where he lives on a small ranch with his wife and children. There he has found time to write a minor epic of one of the many Spanish-American villagesthat lie, built of the very earth in which they have been rooted for many generations, a few scores of miles
from his home. In "The Life and Death of Little Joe" he has successfully accomplished the threefold task that faces every novelist who writes
Chapter I at the head of his first page. The men and women and the children he creates are living and understandable people; the drama in which they become involved is logical and moving, since it is spun out of their natures and their background; the manner in which he writes is beguiling and simple and so is suited to his subject. To add to these virtues his novel is also significant in the social sense, not in the cosmic manner of John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath," though there is violence and passion enough in Mr. Bright's narrative, but because it deals with a people who are poverty- stricken and dispossessed, one of those sub-marginal groups that our fabulous economy has forgotten or
never brought to mind, who may live in the heart of our country or on its borders, as they do in this case. It does not lose vitality for thus being
anchored to a minute nucleus of human life in the vast desert landscape, or because here are only a handful of people who are struggling against
the forces that are destroying them and whose final loss of everything, including their very souls, cannot be avoided by running away to any other
place on earth. Joe Sandovilla, "Little Joe," is born
in this village, if you can call a few scattered adobe huts, a single store, and a tiny church rarely reached by the Padre, a village; he dies outside of the range of the book, in Bataan, and the novel evolves as the author looks back sorrowfully but exultantly on his brief and passionate life. He is the son of a murderer who had killed a neighbor in sudden passion and in a
fair fight and had been dragged off,
before Joe's birth, to the jail in Santa
Fe. His mother, a gentle and childlike
girl, dies while he is still a small
boy. The village cannot understand
how the State can be so cold-blooded
as to imprison a man at a time when
his wife most needs him, or why, after
he escapes and returns in the dead of
night to see his baby and to love his
wife, he must leave them again forever.
In time Joe becomes, as was his
father, the village minstrel, bringing
to his earth-worn neighbors ecstasy
and solace, his music uniting them
with their past. He also becomes, from
his birth, the victim of two conflicting
forces that are destroying the ancient
ways of the village. The storekeeper,
the patron of his people, wields
a power over them that few multimillionaires
possess, since their very
lives are in fief to his mortgages.
Some contact with American life had
made him greedier, less humane, than
his forefathers from whom he had inherited
his tiny kingdom; he began to
encroach on their immemorial rights,
to sell their lands to outsiders, to despise
them for their hopeless poverty
and their ignorance. As the boy grows
up he tries to take him away from
his people and to show him the other
way of life, the money way, so that
he can marry his precocious and voluptuous
daughter, and so have an
heir for his throne.
When Joe's mother died and with
her his home, his aunt, who hated his
mother and who had hoped that his
father would be hanged, seizes the boy.
From then on he struggles like a
caged wild bird, his instincts pulling
him back to his own kind, his ambition
trying to force him to change
his nature. In the end a wild revolt
against his uncle's cruelty forces him
into his true course back to his
mother's religion and the songs and
the music he had abandoned. He marries
and his last act before he leaves
to enlist in the army is to repeat his
father's sin, to murder in a burst of
savage anger the cousin who has been
his worst tormentor. His crime is undiscovered
and the last that the village
sees of Little Joe is when he drives
away in the ancient wagon on the
way to the Philippines and to his
death.
This is not, in one sense, an important
novel, in the way that the bestsellers
that thunder past us from time
to time are important. But it is a
story that you will want to read again
when you come across it some day,
half-forgotten among your books. Mr.
Bright has the gift of being able to
charm his readers and to give to the
crimes and the native savageries of
his characters an air of innocence and
naivete. Joe's mother, who dies so
early in his pages, is one of his most
successful creations, a slender, largeeyed
little creature, as sensitive to vibrations
in the air about her as a
young deer, but courageous and fierce
in her love for her child and her husband.
Joe's grandfather, old Cornelio,
represents the old life and the old
customs that are vanishing so fast that
ten years of today can work more
change in the hearts and minds of men
than the last two centuries.
The villains, to be sure, are as black
as night. Joe's uncle and aunt have not
one redeeming virtue, though the
storekeeper has a kind of shrewd nature
about him, and he is, at least,
conscious of his spiritual loneliness
when he knows that he has lost forever
the awed respect of his fellow
men and so has lost his chance for
heaven, too. The contrast between
good and evil throughout the novel is
perhaps too glaring; but, if it is a
fault, it is easy to overlook.
Perhaps it is the nostalgia for our
lost Edens of simplicity and innocence,
if indeed these Edens ever existed,
that gives Mr. Bright's novel
its central and persuasive appeal. It is
concerned with a group of human
beings who seem to be doomed, and
at the same time it is an allegory of
man's eternal fate, his perpetual, and
agonizing effort to climb out of Eden
and to reach toward the stars-harrison Smith
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Book description
A tiny segment of America, shut in by ignorance, fostered by the selfish interests of the storekeeper who dominates the community and who keeps the people bound to their old Spanish ways, beliefs, superstitions, faith, despite the efforts of a few sceptics who were once ""outside"" -- such is the setting for this unusual story of a Penitente community in New Mexico. Little Jo has achieved legendary fame in the group as the son of a murderer who escaped from jail to see his baby and his wife before she died. The boy is brought up by a spiteful uncle and aunt; he is championed by old Cornelio, loved by direct, fiery Mela, and noted because of his inherited ability to sing the old songs in the traditional way. The bleak life in the community is supplemented by the colorful religious and social events, the unworldly attitude towards the law, governmental regulations, education and health -- factors in producing Little Jo for the Army, which plucks him out of his little world, after he has had his revenge on his hated cousin.....A nice job.
-Kirkus Review
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