2016-03-24 / Opinions

The Cruel Country

Book Review

The “cruel country” is the state of mourning, according to Judith Ortiz Cofer. Cofer is a professor of English and Creative Writing Emerita at the University of Georgia. She is a poet, as well as a prose writer, having published several books.

In The Cruel Country, she takes us with her as she navigates the experience of losing her mother. It is, in a way, a memoir of her mother’s life, interspersed with her own story. She was born in Puerto Rico and moved with her family to Paterson, New Jersey, when she was four years old. Her father was in the U.S. Navy, and was often away on extended assignments. Her mother, always yearning for her native land, family, and language, depended on Judith as a translator and errand runner.

Both parents restricted the children’s activities, afraid of the neighborhood and different culture. Her father suffered from mental illness that was diagnosed only much later. Her mother seemed a different person when she and the children returned to Puerto Rico every year when their father was away at sea. In New Jersey, she seldom left their apartment and didn’t interact even with neighbors. At home, she was joyous and outgoing and happy.

When Judith reached adolescence, she had typical teen-aged differences with her mother and only in adulthood appreciated how hard those years of “exile” were for her mother. Meanwhile, Judith found success in words, learning English and succeeding in school. They moved to Augusta, Georgia, when she was in high school, and she received scholarships to college. She became a university professor and published author.

After her father’s death, her mother, Fanny, returns to Puerto Rico and builds a new life. She remarries, creates a home where Judith and her new family visit. This book begins in Georgia when her husband John learns that his father is dying. They live nearby and are able to help during his illness. However, shortly after his death, Judith is called to Puerto Rico, where her mother is in the hospital, suffering from advanced cancer.

Thus, Judith enters that cruel country and struggles between her two cultures as she loses her mother. She has abandoned her mother’s Catholicism but respects the rituals and customs that her relatives and Fanny’s husband depend on. She has become a foreigner in her native land, but tries to conform to the needs of the family.

Because words have always been her strength, she turns to “the power of words” to sustain her. “Her memory depends on my efforts now, and I will use the skills I learned…” She falls into the traditional role of dutiful daughter as the days go on, following the rule of el respecto. Staying there during the days following her mother’s death is hard as she needs to get back to her husband, daughter, and grandson, but she endures. However, her ordeal is not over even then, because she learns that her husband, back in the States, is seriously ill.

The Cruel Country, moving and beautifully written, will linger in your mind with its universal challenges. It is available at the Mary Willis Library.

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