{book} a gift of gracias

on

DAY 07

A Gift of Gracias by Julia Alvarez, Illustrated by Beatriz Vidal

Borzoi Book published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.

It should be of no surprise that seeing another picture book by Julia Alvarez would occupy one of the 31 days of October.

“Maria’s family is almost forced to leave their farm on the new island colony, until a mysterious lady appears in Maria’s dream.”—publisher

The new island colony is the Dominican Republic in the early 1500s and the mysterious lady becomes identified as Our Lady of Altagracia (Our Lady of Thanks). She comes to Maria in a dream during a most desperate time. Olives were a more successful crop in Spain where her parents are from and fail to thrive in this new colony. The family will likely lose their farm and have to move to the city. The sweet treat of the oranges her father brings from the port city follow Maria into her dreams where the old Indian Quisqueya instructs her to plant each seed with a word of thanks. She does so and the mysterious lady comes with the miraculous appearance of fully grown and producing orange trees. In an act of faith, so too, does Maria, her parents and Quisqueya plant the orange seeds during the waking. And like her dream, the trees grow and bloom and produce supernaturally. Father and Quisqueya have a crop to take to the city to sell while the rest threaten in their abundance to go to waste.

Father wants to bring home a gift for Maria and she asks for a portrait of some kind of Our Lady of Altagracia. He cannot find her in the city. It is Quisqueya who is able to capture her image by catching stars in a blanket during their journey home. It is Quisqueya who tells Maria that he knows Our Lady as well for she has been caring and gracious to his people as well. The Taino Indian Quisqueya’s name comes from the name of the island before it was renamed by the Spaniards when they colonized the island. Our Lady of Altagracia, though identified through a different religious lens, is a native of the island and eager to help those vulnerable and in need agriculturally. She hears Maria’s plight and responds to her humility. Maria, who is an intersection, born of Spanish parents but on the new island. And the story closes with her “head[ing] down the dark path, the stars of Our Lady’s robe light[ing] her way.” This is a fascinating origin story, and not only of the founding of the virgincita as the Domincan Republic has come to know her, but of a beginning for the new colony that is born of grace, of humility and cooperation with the native person, land, and spirituality—as opposed to other accounts on record.

Beatriz Vidal’s work with gouache is vibrant and warm. Like Julia Alvarez’s story, the dramatic flourishes are left to the events in the story themselves, not in overwrought prose or illustration. Alvarez is a marvelous teller of lore and Vidal’s illustrations have a feel of the folk loric as well. Alvarez shares more about the story in a section at the end shockingly titled “About the Story.” She talks about the different versions of the story, of the virgencita, of Quesqueya’s name, and provides some pronunciations. As she does in The Secret Footprints (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), Alvarez shares her personal connection to this story of Maria and the gift of gracias. A Gift of Gracias inspires not only a desire to learn more about the culture of the Dominican Republic, but for the reader to find a personal connection to their own cultural lore.

recommendations: for ages 4-8 (and up). and maybe have some oranges on hand…

{all images belong to Beatriz Vidal}

my review of The Secret Footprints.

thoughts? would love to hear them...

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