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Bitter Grounds by Sandra Benitez

Bitter Grounds (1997)

by Sandra Benitez

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This is a sweeping historical epic covering three generations of two families: the Tabors, who are aristocratic land-owners; and the Prieto clan, the servants/peasants employed by the Tabors. Through these families the reader learns something of the history of El Salvador from about 1932 to 1975, including the role of the Church, the military, and the influence of the United States on the politics of this nation. But the main story line of the novel remained focused on these two families and their interaction over several generations.
I really enjoyed the way Benítez showed these two classes interacting. As much as they felt they were different and as much as they were kept apart (or at least the upper class tried to separate themselves from the lower class), they were inextricably linked and their lives held many parallels. Mothers and daughters disagreed; husbands betrayed their wives; children refused to listen; secrets were kept; and everyone was addicted to the radio soap opera, Los Dos (and yet never recognized how that story line also paralleled their real-life stories).

This won the American Book Award in 1998. ( )
  BookConcierge | Jul 2, 2018 |
I read this book out loud to my husband during lengthy car trips. The book is less about the coffee industry and more about the social welfare of El Salvador and its people. It was like life, happy, sad, heartbreaking at times, but always very real. I knew nothing of the events in this country which, in this book, take place between 1932 and 1977 and it made me glad I never had to live through things like this. Well worth reading. ( )
  Oodles | Feb 16, 2016 |
I read this book because it is set in El Salvador and i am currently reading work by Central American writers. To prepare myself for a journey there. I was quite pleased to come upon a book set in El Salvador, even if the author is not originally from that country and lives in the United States now. She has lived in El Salvador for 20 years, so I suppose she knows quite a bit about this country, its culture and its history.

This book is about three generations of women from two families, one rich, the other poor. It starts during la Matanza, the killing of tens of thousands of people, mainly indigenous peasants. And ends during the civil war in the 1970's.

I must admit that I didn't like Benitez' style at all. It's like one long telenovela. Just by the way new male characters are described you know that they are going to get romantically involved with one of the female characters. They are always beautiful and have dark curly hair. It is also melodramatic. I was eager for the historical background, but this is something that is kept very much hidden, as most of the main characters are women who are not involved in politics but more concerned with their houses, children and lovelives. I guess that in a way you could say they are strong characters, yet they have different priorities. I guess I should just read a history book :-) ( )
  Tinwara | Oct 2, 2011 |
Another book passed on to me by my younger brother who lives in Latin America.

Benitez takes us through modern history of El Salvador through the relationships of three generations of women from two very different backgrounds.

We start with Mercedes and Elena, the former living in a hut in the shadow of Izalco, an active volcano, while the latter is from a privileged background, the wife of a coffee plantation owner. Mercedes is a very calm woman, fairly methodical, but the losses she has suffered are always with her.

Her daughter, Jacinta, has more fire in her belly, she is practical, but prone to passionate outbursts. Jacinta ends up working for Magda, Elena's daughter, who depends greatly and on her and is keen for their own daughters to be raised together, despite the reservations of her in-laws. Magda is also a strong character determined to open a shop, Tesoro, against society's clearly defined female roles: wife, mother and home-maker.

Jacinta's daughter, Maria Mercedes, becomes involved in the struggle to educate the peasants, a struggle turning increasingly violent. Flora, Magda's daughter, is bloody-minded, in terms of her private life, turning to dramatic methods to get her man, but she is less aware of what is happening around her.

The political situation affects everyone's lives in the book, from the Matanza to the violence of the 1970s. Setting these three pairs and their stories against such a background helps to humanise the history, making it more real to a reader unfamiliar with El Salvador. Women dominate the book, as mothers, home-makers, but also as the ones left to deal with the aftermath. Benitez shows the bonds that transcend wealth and situation, bonds so strong that it makes the betrayals so much more painful.

I enjoyed the touches of magical realism, from Mercedes seeing the ghosts or spirits of the dead to Elena's ring which seems bewitched. Another enjoyable thread running through the book was that of the radio soap opera to which everyone is addicted, another element which transcends class, but also mirrors aspects of the main plot. ( )
  soffitta1 | Sep 6, 2011 |
I was so sad when I finished this book. What a wonderful story. It pulls you right in. The cultural details were amazing. ( )
  rachelprz | Aug 9, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0312195419, Paperback)

Bitter Grounds, Sandra Benitez's American Book Award-winning novel, chronicles the lives of three generations of women in war-torn El Salvador. After losing most of their family during the massacres of 1932, Mercedes Prietas and her daughter Jacinta go to work for Elena de Contreras and her family, who own enormous coffee and cotton plantations. During the next 40 years, the women of both families help each other endure the many hardships that come their way. Benitez manages to portray both the poor and the rich women in this book as complex, sympathetic characters. Like the heroines of Los dos, their favorite radio soap opera, the women in this novel suffer heartache, unrequited love, betrayal, and the loss of loved ones. One by one, all of Jacinta's family members are killed amid the country's political turmoil. Elena's heart breaks when she discovers her best friend in bed with her husband on the eve of their daughter's marriage. The Contreras family struggles to retain control of its land during the late 1970s government-mandated redistribution of wealth. Through it all, the women sustain each other, even after circumstances separate them: "Sometimes, late at night or, most often, very early in the morning, when Jacinta lay in her cot in the little room she shared with Rosalba, her mother stirred within her. This was not craziness, but a consolation. To feel her mother's flesh, her bulk, shored up along the banks of her own bones and flesh." Bitter Grounds is a thoughtful, vivid account of the lives of some very resilient women.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:29 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

A novel on El Salvador featuring two families on a coffee plantation, one which owns it, the other works it. The novel begins with a 1930s massacre of Indians, suspected of being Communists, and ends with exile in 1970s Miami.

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