Those who take comfort from a highly organized and very disciplined religion would not likely find much pleasure in reading Rudolfo Anaya's breakthrough novel, Bless Me, Ultima. It is the story of a young boy growing up dirt poor on the outskirts of a small New Mexico town just at the close of World War II. The book was first published in 1972 and has gone on to become a classic of Chicano literature.
The central character, Antonio "Tony" Marez Luna, is the youngest of six children. He has three grown brothers who are off fighting in World War II in the Pacific, and two sisters who are a few years older than him. His father is a Marez (of the sea) and hopes that Tony will grow into an independent man and enjoy the freedom of life on the open plain, the llano, a lifestyle that is quickly fading, and one which has eluded the father. The mother, a Luna (of the moon), is from a long line of farmers, sensible people rooted in the earth. She hopes her youngest will get a good education and eventually become a priest.
Tony, a few months shy of beginning first grade when the story opens, has his life set in motion one night when he witnesses the people of the town, including his father, kill a murderer in a little creek close to where he lives. At about the same time Tony's mother invites an old healing woman, Ultima, into their home to live with them. Ultima has had a long history with the Marez family and assisted Tony's mother in the delivery of all of her children.
Tony's mother is a devout Catholic, and Ultima is steeped in natural lore, heals with herbs, and believes in spirits. Together they each have a strong impact on Tony, a child who desperately wants to understand God.
Bless Me, Ultima wanders through formal religion, customs, traditions, and superstitions to show the impact that all of these beliefs can have on people, particularly on the absorbent mind of a young child who seeking to learn the ways of life and to be a good person. To achieve that end, and to understand all of the various facets of God and of life, Tony gradually forms a deep emotional bond to Ultima.
While this book does contain a lot of detail on the Catholic religion, and particularly the training that goes into the acceptance of young people into the family of the Church, it also shows how religion can be expanded, or corrupted, by forces beyond the walls of the Church. It gives the definite impression that religion and nature are intertwined, and together form something well beyond the understanding of most of us - and certainly beyond the teachings of one particular text.
Ultima understood, and Tony was slowly allowing his mind to open.
But some of those who sat in the same pews of the same homogenized churches every week did not understand, so they pulled this book from the shelves to protect their children from dangerous ideas.
Bless Me, Ultima, is a powerful book, one that leaves the reader thinking - whether the reader is comfortable with that outcome or not.