Verdict: An inspirational story that shines some light on the struggles of semi-enslaved servant girls taken from rural indigenous Ecuadorean villages. While the story is a lightly fictionalized account of a real person’s story, it lacks the narrative propulsion of fiction and the feeling of truth of a memoir.
Perfect for: Readers who like tales of young people from other cultures who survive horrible situations against all odds, such as McCormick’s Sold, Ryan’s Esperanza Rising, Perkins’ Bamboo People.
Summary: Virginia is born into a dirty shack to indigenous farming parents in rural Ecuador during a time (the story is set in the 1980s) when whiter upperclass “mestizos” made life miserable for the generally lower class indigenous people. At the age of seven, Virginia’s parents agree to let her work as a servant and nanny for a mestizo couple hours away in another town. Instead of paying her wages, the couple treats her as something between a slave and an indentured servant, all the while calling her “daughter” and promising her education and other opportunities. Virginia must struggle to retain her cheeky spunk and find a way to give herself the opportunities she strives for. Based on the true story of Maria Virginia Farinango.
You guys already know how tired I am of teen books being narrated in First Person Present Tense, but this one REALLY should not have been written in FPPT. According to the author’s website, the story was originally going to be a non-fiction account of Virginia Farinango’s life complete with a lot of cultural context, but the author and Virginia decided to make it more compelling for teen readers by slightly fictionalizing the story to give it a more engaging narrative flow. I suspect the author chose First Person Present Tense in order to try to give the reader a “you are there” immediacy and to make it seem more fictional. Unfortunately, the book seemed to neither be successful as fiction or as a true-to-life story, in part because of the use of FPPT. One reason FPPT didn’t work is that the story spans Virginia’s life from age 7 to 17; I think FPPT makes more sense when time is compressed and there is an urgency to the story. FPPT also didn’t make sense because [SPOILER] the climax of the book is when Virginia enters a pageant in which she tries to win the title of Queen of Water. Having “Queen of Water” be the title of the book removes any suspense of Virginia winning this pageant and therefore deflates the immediacy attempted by using FPPT. (The original idea for a title was “A Dream of the Andes” which I think is a way better title) [END SPOILER].
Another reason that the story seems far more fictional than realistic is that the characters that act in monstrous ways towards Virginia are described as physically unattractive. The woman who inflicts the most pain on Virginia’s life is continually described as overweight, and it seems that as that character gets more and more cruel she is described as more and more fat. Another character who at first seems sympathetic is described at the beginning of the story as having bright hair, but later when this character reveals a more sinister side, it is pointed out that he is balding. Meanwhile, Virginia is always pointing out that other people think of her as beautiful, and later on her attractiveness plays a major part in two plot points**. Now, these characters were based on real people and it may be 100% true that they looked and acted just like they are portrayed in the book, but by using the “Beauty Equals Goodness” trope, the author makes the characters seem more like stereotypes. The use of this trope is another reason why I wish this important story had been published as a straightforward memoir instead of fiction. But I think the fiction could have felt more real if this trope wasn’t used.
**By the way, the cover of the book is a photo of the real 30-something Virginia photo-shopped to make her look like a teen. How cool is that? There are so many cases of publishers “white-washing” cover art about non-white protagonists, but this cover has the real protagonist in her actual traditional indigenous Ecuadorian clothing.
The real Virginia’s story is truly dramatic and compelling, but the way her story was told in this novel made it seem like the events in her life were a bit over dramatized. In some ways this is not the book’s fault, but the fault of all the other YA books out there that pile on tragedies and issues onto their heroines (looking at you, Ellen Hopkins). In Queen of Water, Virginia experiences grinding poverty, physical abuse, sexual molestation and an eating disorder. On the more positive side of extreme drama, illiterate Virginia also teaches herself to read: in the course of just a few short months, she goes from learning the alphabet to reading and understanding a middle grade level science textbook with difficult terminology. Her drive to learn eventually leads to [SPOILER] her acceptance into a prestigious private school which gives her the opportunity to pull herself out of poverty and her indentured servitude [END SPOILER]. These things really happened to Virginia, but the compressed nature of the fictional story makes it seem like these events were pure fiction and created for the purpose of drama. Again, I think that if the book had been a memoir, it would have been more believable.
One thing that felt extremely realistic about the story was that Virginia does not romanticize the poverty that she grows up in. She much prefers the good food and clean housing of the abusive mestizo couple she works for over the dirt shack filled with lice and fleas that she was born into. She is clear-eyed about the limitations of her birth parents who were teens when they had her, and who were not able to provide the attention, love, and access to education that Virginia eventually craves. I appreciated that this is not the kind of book that simplistically equates the mestizo city people as evil and the rural farmers as simple and noble.
I hope it is clear by now that I don’t think Queen of Water is a “bad” book, but rather an amazing story with some narrative flaws. My favorite part about it was Virginia’s struggle to define her identity. She wants to escape her indigenous poverty for the middle class luxuries of mestizo life and the advantages of mestizo education, but as she travels back and forth between both worlds, she finds that “it is exhausting being two different people”. This conflict culminates in my favorite scene of the entire book, which happens to be one of the few scenes the author says is pure fiction: [SPOILER] Virginia has escaped the abusive mestizo couple and has gotten herself into an elite private school which she pays for by working at a hotel restaurant. After winning a contest, she is invited to the hotel as a guest of honor to meet and eat with some dignitaries. She is being honored for her successes in the mestizo world, but as she sees her indigenous coworkers struggling to keep pace with waiting tables, she springs up and lends a hand to serve food and drink.[END SPOILER].The scene is a beautiful reconciliation of the tension she feels between her indigenous and mestizo identities. Although this post contains suggestions for how the narrative could have been more effective, I was very glad to have got to know both the fictional and non-fictional Virginia.