Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Faith and longing in Kirstin Valdez Quade’s story collection ‘Night at the Fiestas’

All the stories in NIGHT AT THE FIESTAS, Kirstin Valdez Quade’s debut collection are set in Northern New Mexico where her family has lived for generations. “My family’s presence can be traced back to 1695 and some of the earliest conquistadors. So there’s a long family history in the region,” she said in an interview conducted by NPR staff (3/28/15). This deep familiarity with a place and its people, as might be expected, adds depth and nuance to her work.

While the stories are not linked in the traditional sense, there being no overlapping characters or events, there are themes that recur in story
after story. Families are rent by violence, divorce or abandonment and the children bear the brunt.

Faith (or the lack of it) is also a theme in Valdez Quades stories. Of this, she said in the NPR interview:

Certainly, I think one of the reasons I’m interested in faith is that faith is so much about longing. It’s about longing for transcendence, it’s longing to be closer to the infinite and longing to connect with others; it’s about empathy. And I think that’s also the project of fiction. Fiction is about longing and empathy.

In “Nemecia,” Maria is tormented by her troubled cousin who has been raised by Maria’s parents since Nemecia’s own pregnant mother, Benigna, fell into a violence-induced coma: “I was afraid of Nemecia because I knew her greatest secret: when she was five, she put her mother in a coma and killed our grandfather.”

Nemecia breaks or damages every toy of Maria’s and even scars her face with a nail. Maria thinks:

My mother was hawkish about her children’s safety – but she trusted Nemecia. Nemecia, almost an orphan, the daughter of my mother’s beloved older sister. Nemecia was my mother’s first and – I knew it even then – favorite child.

Maria is chosen to be the angel at head of the Corpus Christi Day parade, a great honor. Almost immediately Nemecia persuades Maria’s mother that she should be given this honor instead of Maria. Maria is enraged and calls Nemecia a murderer. She is told to pack a suitcase and is sent to live with her Aunt Paulita for what she is told will only be a short time. Maria says, “My mother had sent me away, and my father had done nothing to stop her. They’d picked Nemecia, picked Nemecia over their real daughter.”

In “Mojave Rats,” Monica Vigil-Rios and her seven year old daughter, Cordelia, and baby Beatrice are alone in a broken down single-wide in an RV park in the desert. (Manson and his followers camped there once, her husband tells her before departing.) The husband (Cordelia’s stepfather) is off doing geological fieldwork for his dissertation.

Bleakly, Cordelia said, “You love him more than you love us.”

Monica put her arm around the little girl, gave a gentle shake. They’d been down this road before.

“That’s silly. I love you differently. You two are my precious daughters.”

Cordelia was stiff and muffled under her arm. She was looking at her sleeping sister. “But you love him more than you love me.”

“Want me to read to you?”

Cordelia sleeps in the loft of the trailer; the adults and their baby sleep together in a bed:

In the morning, Cordelia would awaken early. She would look down from the loft at her family: her mother, her stepfather, and between them, arms flung wide, her little sister. Cordelia would forever feel on the outside.

Likewise, in “The Guesthouse,” Jeff remembers what his violent father did to their mother but his sister, Brooke, was only a year old when their father left. Jeff is “glad she was spared the memories but he knows she just feels excluded.”

The title story, “Night at the Fiestas” concerns a sheltered young girl who is reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles:

Frances was sixteen years old and twitchy with impatience. If Frances’s life was to be a novel – as Frances fully intended – then finally, finally, something might happen at the Fiestas that could constitute the first page.

…Frances considered herself, like Tess, a vessel of emotion untinctured by experience, and Frances very much wanted to be tinctured.

She has been given permission to ride the bus to the Fiestas of Santa Fe (her father is the bus driver) where she will join her cousin Nancy who “made Frances feel dull and wholesome, an actual country cousin.” At the Fiesta, an effigy of Zozobra (Old Man Gloom) is burned, consuming bad luck, worries and misfortunes. Afterward, there is wild dancing, kissing and fighting in the plaza. Frances is left alone in the crowd, finding nowhere to fit in. She ends up back at the bus station “bereft and disbelieving,” to wait for a bus that will not come until morning. “On the Plaza, the music suddenly stopped, and in the pause between the music and the cheers, the endless night settled across her shoulders.”

The most powerful story in the collection is The Five Wounds. Some sixteen years ago, Amadeo Padilla got a girl pregnant. He never married her, even though he had promised to do so, never supported her or her child. Just before they parted, he called her a dirty, dirty whore – “ever since she slept with him he can’t look at her the same way.”

In the ensuing years, he has continued to be unreliable in every way and now lives with his mother. “He wonders if the priest can sense Amadeo failing everyone.”

Then, he is chosen to be Jesus in the Easter rituals. He will not “play” Jesus; he will “be” Jesus, fasting and praying before the ceremony, dragging a heavy cross up the hill, being whipped, crowned with thorns, placed on the cross and – he wonders if he will be man enough to do this – if he calls for them, nails will actually be driven into his hands.

On the eve of this event, his fifteen year old daughter – Angel – who is eight months pregnant, shows up. He wishes she were not there; he wishes his mother (who is away on a visit) were there to deal with her instead. He wants her to go back to her own mother’s house. He thinks she will distract him from his duties as Jesus.

But, once on the cross, he looks down at her and realizes,

“And Angel isn’t a distraction – she’s the point! Everything Jesus did He did for his children. …And he knows what is missing. It’s Angel who has been forsaken.”

In a final haunting image, as they drive the nails into his hands, “Angel cries out and holds her hands aloft, offering them to him….”

Kirstin Valdez Quade’s fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Best American Short Stories, and elsewhere. She was a Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer at Stanford University and teaches writing as the Nicholas Delbanco Visiting Professor at the University of Michigan. She is a 2013 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer's Award winner and a 2014 “Five Under Thirty-Five” Award winner from the National Book Foundation.


  1. What an interesting set of stories. I'm anxious to read them all.

  2. I was surprised to see only 5 reviews of this book on Amazon. It's amazing that a book with so few reviews can garner such success. Can't wait to dive into this collection! Thanks for blogging about it.