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Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr

Stones for Ibarra (1984)

by Harriet Doerr

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Stones for Ibarra originated as a group of short stories about an American couple in a small Mexican village. The vignettes that constitute the eighteen chapters of the novel are set in the 1960's and chronicle episodes that focus on the interactions of the couple with the denizens of Ibarra, connected by the passage of time between the arrival of Richard and Sara Everton and Sara’s departure six years later. The author claimed that only a small part of Stones for Ibarra was autobiographical, but the framework of the novel recalls the Doerr family’s forays to Mexico.

In the first chapter, “The Evertons Out of Their Minds,” the couple go to Mexico from San Francisco, California, to reclaim their family estate and reopen a copper mine abandoned since the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Not long after their arrival at the unexpectedly dilapidated house, which fails to match the faded family photos or the Evertons’s dreams, Richard is diagnosed with leukemia and given six years to live. Despite the brevity of the second chapter, “A Clear Understanding,” several months pass in which the Evertons are observed by the townspeople, who find the Americans peculiar. Interestingly the Evertons never really shed their outsider status in spite of their interest in the culture of the small community.

Richard seems emboldened by his medical diagnosis and works hard to make the mine operable, hiring many locals and becoming something of hero in a strange way. The stories that comprise the short chapters drift backward and forward in time, though when a native is asked about specifics of an incident he replies: "Senora, it is as difficult to recapture the past as it is to prefigure the future." The author meanwhile is successful in portraying the landscape, and gradually providing evidence of the kind of culture that exists in this out of the way place.

The town priest is a frequent visitor to the Everton home, and he figures in many of the vignettes of the novel. He has a variety of assistant priests, who build basketball courts, are beloved of dogs, and impregnate a woman from a neighboring village. He sponsors a town picnic and solicits donations from the nonbelieving Evertons. Other vignettes relate the sad tale of brother killing brother, the use of native remedies to protect the Everton house, Sara’s Spanish lessons with Madre Petra, and the visit of a Canadian geologist and his Lebanese engineer.

The novel is written in a thoroughly crafted prose in which each sentence is pared down and polished until only the essential remains. As a consequence, the reader seems to somehow create the text while reading it, to discover in Doerr’s spare phrases the meaning and emotion the characters themselves hesitate to reveal. The novel reveals as much about the “lost” American expatriates as it does about the Mexican natives, by shifting perspectives and allowing the reader to see each group or individual through the eyes of the other. ( )
  jwhenderson | Jan 8, 2018 |
11. Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr
published: 1984
format: 214 page paperback
acquired: inherited from my neighbor upon his move
read: Feb 20-24
rating: 4

Doerr's claim to fame seems to be that she published her first book, this one here, at the ripe young age of 74. She outlived her husband, who died of leukemia, and then went back to school to complete her unfinished BA and that led to here.

Gentle and atmospheric are two things I struck me initially on starting this. Richard Everton abandons his career in the US to re-open a family owned mine in the middle of nowhere desert of Mexico. He brings his wife, Sara, and they move into an old run-down mansion in a tiny town, find plenty of locals willing to work the mine. Shortly afterward he is diagnosed with leukemia. Most of this is autobiographical.

The novel isn't like a novel. It has the feel of linked short stories, with each chapter focusing on one character or oddity of the region. Several were published prior to the book. First Sara is generally amused. She struggles to learn Spanish well enough to have clear communication, but wonders and is charmed by the passionate and brutal Catholic community she now lives within. But these stories seems to get darker, and Richard gets sicker, and husband and wife remain non-religious outsiders (called North Americans), wealthy benevolent respected and necessary heathens. Eventually the stories settle more on Sara and her mental and emotional struggles with her husband's sickness, and somewhat with her grief after his passing. There is a cumulative gravitas. And there is a lot of Mexico. Still thinking about it. ( )
1 vote dchaikin | Feb 25, 2017 |
Harriet Door captured the perfect balance of complexity and simplicity with her first novel, [Stones for Ibarra]. Her effortless and lyrical story cuts deep, matching the precarious landscape where her characters reside.

Richard and Sara Riverton abandon their comfortable life in San Franciso for an abandoned copper mine in the mountains of Mexico. Their American habits and beliefs don’t fit into the traditional, Catholic culture of Ibarra. But, largely because they have given the town an economic boost, they are cautiously adopted. Doerr recounts the Riverton’s six year stay in Ibarra, focusing largely on the town’s other eccentric inhabitants and the nature of life in the perilous desert mountain town.

Doerr’s connection to the people and land in such a forgotten and hard place is the real wonder of [Stones for Ibarra]. The description of the harsh, gritty land of Ibarra resonated for me, a desert dweller myself.

“…witness a recurring Mexican phenomenon: the abrupt appearance of human life in an empty landscape.”

“This air is affecting us all … everything is too intense, too quick, and too perilous.”

“(houses) dissolving with the rain and scattering with the rain.”

But what really captured me was Doerr’s simple writing. There is nothing expansive about Doerr’s prose, allowing its plainness to take root and flower. She infuses each of her characters and stories with such complexity with such spare language that you don’t notice you’re reading. It’s like a fireside chat with a lover about the day’s events.

Bottom Line: Plain and melodic story; a simple tale with its roots in a harsh landscape.

5 bones!!!!!
An All-Time Favorite ( )
3 vote blackdogbooks | Apr 13, 2014 |
Just a beautiful little gem of a book. Unique. Each chapter is like a little novella, each with a different set of characters, different scenes, events in Ibarra. Doerr weaves these pieces together to create a picture of this isolated, struggling Mexican village and to tell the story of the Evertons, an American couple who move to Ibarra to resurrect a grandfather’s abandoned mine.

The prose is spare, the mood is both tender and melancholy. Intimations of mortality flash throughout. I found the opening paragraph of each chapter was often striking, as Doerr introduced a new scene, setting or characters. For example:
In Ibarra half a year is no more than a shard chipped from the rock face of eternity.

Believing as they did in a relentless providence, the people of Ibarra, daily and without surprise, met their individual dooms. They accepted as inevitable the hail on ripe corn, the vultures at the heart of the starved cow, the stillborn child.

This beautiful book was published when Harriet Doerr was 75 and it won the National Book Award for best first novel in 1985. A true late bloomer!! ( )
1 vote RobinDawson | Feb 9, 2014 |
Harriet Doerr published her first novel, Stones for Ibarra, at the age of 73. An inspiring accomplishment. It also may help explain the charming, quiet quality of her storytelling. A young American couple, Richard and Sara Everton, decides in 1960 or so to move from California to a Mexican village and re-open the mining operation abandoned by the husband's family during the 1910 revolution. They mortgage their house, and cash in, leverage and borrow to the fullest extent, despite the fears of family and friends.

"Every day for a month Richard has reminded Sara, 'We mustn't expect too much.' And each time his wife has answered, 'No'. But the Evertons expect too much. They have experienced the terrible persuasion of a great-aunt's recollections and adopted them as their own. They have not considered that memories are like corks left out of bottles. They swell. They no longer fit." The grandfather's house is more rundown than they expect, the journey to find it tougher than anticipated. But they settle in quickly, and the villagers take to them. The Evertons bring jobs and respect, along with their peculiar American ways.

There's a beautiful passage in which the villagers finally find the word to describe the couple, mediodesorientado, or half-disoriented, like the joyful child who has been spun around many times and blindly strikes at the pinata, making everyone laugh.

As we learn early on, Richard has been diagnosed with a seemingly incurable disease, and may only have six years to live. The book affectionately describes their time together in Ibarra, much of it through the eyes of Sara, as she learns Spanish, becomes enmeshed in the community, and deals with her husband's condition. At the same time, he and the locals work to make the mine prosper and the community thrive. The villagers' stories supply many of the book's attractions: the priest who keeps being sent comically ill-suited assistants, the entrepreneur dedicated to setting up a taxi service between villages, the woman who helps at the house who is determined to repel sickness and bad luck through her folk knowledge, and many others.

The villagers try to help the Evertons with witchcraft and herbs, and stoically resist concepts of modern medicine. Staunchly Catholic, they, including the local priest, nonetheless accept the Evertons' agnosticism. The couple's kindness and friendliness, and positive effect on the community, outweigh their shortcomings. Sara learns lovely and increasingly creative stories from the nun teaching her Spanish, which she brings home to a disbelieving Richard. They light candles, sit by the fire, and share their day together. This is a graceful, charming book, about transplanted Americans and their effect on closely observed lives in a small Mexican village. ( )
11 vote jnwelch | May 15, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 13 (next | show all)
Being in Mexico and recognizing in Ms. Doerr’s stories the same fantastical combination of brightest sunlight, mangy village dogs, blazing bougainvillea, and sugar skulls atop frosted cakes made reading a kind of real-time experience. However, the book would have been equally enjoyable had I read it in back Rhode Island, perhaps on the cooling seashore, so captivated was I with this author who could write such spare, evocative prose and add a twist, as if to keep things from becoming too writerly.

References to this work on external resources.

Wikipedia in English


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This is the story of Sara and Richard Everton, a couple embarked on a journey of renewal. They leave a house and job in San Francisco and travel to the small Mexican village of Ibarra to reopen a copper mine, abandoned in 1910 by Richard's grandfather. They also plan to restore the family home, a crumbling reminder of the past. However, they learn that Richard is dying of leukemia.… (more)

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