Reviews of From This Wicked Patch of Dust
Troncoso, Sergio, From
This Wicked Patch of Dust,
· Best Books of 2012 by Kirkus Reviews
· Southwest Book Award from the Border Regional Library Association
· Notable Book by Southwest Books of the Year
· Silver Medals for Fiction and Multicultural/Indigenous Literature categories in the Nautilus Book Awards
· Finalist for Reading The West Book Award in Adult Fiction from the Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association
· Shortlisted runner-up for biannual PEN/Texas Southwest Book Award for Fiction
Troncoso tells the story of a Mexican-American family
as they come to terms with their cultural heritage over a span of 40 years.
The new novel from Troncoso (Crossing Borders: Personal Essays, 2011) follows Cuauhtémoc and Pilar Martinez and their four children in the border town of
With its skillful pairing of conflict over religious and familial obligations with the backdrop of a Mexican-American family’s love for one another, Troncoso’s novel is an engaging literary achievement.
---Kirkus Reviews, starred review
In a media market
where cultural stereotypes abound, it’s refreshing to read a novel featuring
Latino characters who are nuanced and authentic. Sergio Troncoso’s
latest, From This Wicked Patch of
Dust, follows a family from humble beginnings in a
Cuauhtémoc Martínez is a draftsman, while his wife, Pilar, supplements their income with
Pilar warns her kids about the irrigation canals behind their new house: “It’s full of spiders and frogs and snakes and niños de la tierra. If one bites you, you will die.” But as her children grow into adults, it’s their departure from the family’s culture, traditions and religious mores that concerns her.
Francisco, overweight and shy, struggles with college while helping his father maintain an apartment building the family owns. Marcos becomes a teacher and a commissioned officer in the Army Reserve. Ismael, nicknamed Mayello, has a quick mind that takes him to Harvard, where he dreams of being a writer and marries a Jewish woman from a wealthy family.
Julieta’s passion for social justice leads her into causes such
When Julieta leaves Catholicism for the Muslim faith, the family rift opens wider. Pilar wonders how she failed. “Why had she not succeeded in transmitting her culture, her faith to them? What had she done wrong?”
Troncoso is a straightforward storyteller with a spare style. Even at his most lyrical, he never gets in the way of the story. In one lovely passage, young Ismael foreshadows his future by trapping a crayfish pulled from an irrigation canal. “As the animal tested the walls of the cardboard for an opening” Ismael “pinched its slimy green back with his fingers and carried the cangrejo up the bank.” It flailed “wildly in the hot air, its tail surprisingly potent. The hard antennae brushed against Mayello’s fingers, but the claws would never reach his flesh as long as he pinched his fingers tightly around the lower back of the crayfish.”
Later, Ismael feels similarly boxed in, caught between the world into which he was born and the one opened to him by education: “One reader of his thesis praised the original research in Spanish, in Mexican archives not yet unearthed by Harvard professors, but lamented the writing ‘from someone whose native language is obviously not English.’ Yet Ismael’s language was not Spanish either. He was in between languages, using one to succeed in the other, yet not quite an heir to either. … Where did he belong? Above all, Ismael wanted desperately to find his voice.”
These middle spaces have long been fodder for writers, though the El Paso-born and Harvard-educated Troncoso has created new, empathetic characters to explore it. No, the real beauty of this book is that it mines the rich diversity of tradition and culture among Latinos, as well as the commonalities they share with other Americans — love of family, faith and country.
Latino readers will enjoy a book that shatters the myth of Latinos as a monolithic voting bloc, but the book will appeal to anyone who cares about the issues and contemporary politics that affect families of any color.
---Beatriz Terrazas for The
What is it to be American, Mexican, Catholic, Jewish or Muslim? What is it to struggle – for sustenance, for the freedom to choose who you want to be? Effortlessly, with elegance of style, Troncoso weaves a tapestry of lives, of human beings who by the end of the book feel not just real, not just intimately close, but undeniable, inescapable, a part of ourselves.
---Miroslav Penkov, Judge for PEN/Texas Southwest Book Award for Fiction (shortlisted runner-up)
Their conversation is so well-grounded in knowing detail that Troncoso makes what might seem fantastic, a brother and a sister so far from Ysleta and so impossibly far from one another, both believable and moving….In the final essay in his collection, “Why Should Latinos Write Their Own Stories?” Troncoso answers, ‘to define ourselves,’ and ‘to challenge ourselves.’ In his novel, he has done this brilliantly.
---C. M. Mayo for Literal Magazine: Latin American Voices
“One reads From This Wicked Patch of Dust and can only pause for a moment to say, ‘Yes.’ Sergio Troncoso writes with inevitable grace and mounting power. Family, in all its baffling wonder, comes alive on these pages.”
---Luis Alberto Urrea, author of The Hummingbird’s Daughter
Sergio Troncoso's admirable second novel From This Wicked Patch of Dust tells the story of the Martínez clan and how it copes when its individual members make decisions that threaten the harmony and unity of the entire family.
Spanning four decades and two continents, the book opens on a more humble note, in Ysleta, the "misnamed, misplaced swath of earth in what had been a prehistoric sea." But for Cuauhtémoc and Pilar Martínez, the border was a place of fresh beginnings and new opportunities.
For the couple's
brood of four, however, growing up in the '60s and '70s where the values of
Though the novel attempts to showcase the disparate lives of the four Martínez children, the focus is on the maturing of Julieta, the oldest, and Ismael, the youngest.
As the only
daughter, Julieta enjoys space to thrive that her
mother never had. She hops from college to college, eventually finding
direction with a group of liberation theologians who take her to
Ismael, "pudgy and painfully shy," is also "the smartest kid at Ysleta" and quickly outgrows the "I-don't-care attitude" that he witnesses in many around him. He becomes politicized and aware of his duty to those less fortunate than he, even as he struggles with being a scholarship kid in an Ivy League school.
But the more important part of the journey toward adulthood is in the siblings' changing attitudes toward religion: Julieta, who considered her parents' version of Catholicism "ignorant and oppressive and materialistic," becomes a Muslim convert; Ismael, removed from the culture of Catholicism ("God existed in Ysleta, but not in Harvard") builds a life with literary pursuits in New York City, partnered with a Jewish woman.
Cuauhtémoc and Pilar can only watch, question and advise from a distance
as an estranged Julieta (now Aliyah,
who wears a chador) moves to
Troncoso resists a
comfortable ending and challenges readers to envision the Chicano family within
a global context because, as this novel illustrates, the safety of home is no
longer true in the post-9/11
From This Wicked Patch of Dust presents difficult lessons about growing up and growing apart, but there's also genuine heart and pride in the depiction of the "four children, four worlds" that spiral out of a single immigrant dream.
Throughout the novel, Troncoso writes
stories from the different perspectives of the
I loved the different narratives of each
The story that really hit home for me was
the moment when Ismael received the call from his
mother that his dear abuelita had passed away. It was
as if this story was taken from my own life experience. The guilt and sadness Ismael felt for living so far away from the family were
feelings I’ve felt before. Family is a huge part of the Mexican culture,
especially our abuelitas who are typically the
matriarch of our families…. I was devastated that I lived so far away and
couldn’t be with them at the end of their lives. But just as in the book, my
family reminded me how proud my Mamá and Papá were of my accomplishments and that they
understood why I couldn’t see them often. It was the very reason they came to
Troncoso does a wonderful job in
depicting this same struggle that many Latino children face growing up in
---Sasha Monik Moreno for The Modern
Tales of young families struggling to build a better life are nothing new. Yet Sergio Troncoso breathes fresh air into the American assimilation story. Born on the border with sharp eyes and ears for his surroundings, Troncoso brings us forward from 1966 to the present day. We watch kids maturing and moving away from the Mexican traditions their parents hold dear: The daughter who partied wildly in Juarez during high school reverts to devout Catholicism in college and finally settles in Islam, where she finds she is once again an immigrant, welcome but never quite fitting in; the letters home from the son whose reserve unit was activated for Iraq seem to lead inevitably to a sealed coffin in the wicked dust of Texas; and the youngest son, who shares Troncoso's Harvard education and devotion to writing, is congratulated by his siblings for the way he can combine all their stories and spin a new one. This story is recognizable as their own, yet it's also wholly universal.
Armstrong for The
*Books To Know: Top Ten Books of August 2012:
Mexican couple, Pilar and Cuauhtémoc,
settle in a shantytown on the border of
---Miriam Laufer for The DC Spotlight Newspaper
Sergio Troncoso has written a wonderful, heart-warming, universal
tale of a family. This story can be about any American family and their
struggle to work, pay bills, raise children, save them from the streets, get
them through college, and live long enough to see their grandchildren.
What’s fascinating about From This Wicked Patch of Dust is that we have not one hero, but a whole family’s worth– Pilar, the mother, who wants to get away from her past and start anew in America; Cuauhtémoc, the father, who will do anything for his wife and children, even embrace a new country; Julieta, the only daughter, an activist-turned-rebel; Pancho, the caretaker and handyman; Marcos, the soldier and teacher; and Ismael, the baby and writer.
Often Pilar looks at her children and thinks: “this family seemed like leaves in the wind, from the same tree, yet floating to their own private destinies.” But that is the fate of all families, be they American, European, Asian, etc. Children grow up and move away to follow their dreams and create their own lives.
Ismael sums up Troncoso’s tale best of all: “I wrote a story. It’s about our family…. It’s about Ysleta. It’s about how we lived, how we tried. It’s about how we were together for a time. I, I didn’t know what else to do…. How else to remember us…. It’s just a story, just words. But it’s what I can do. It’s how I can make sure no one ever forgets.”
And, this reader certainly will not forget. Bravo, Sergio, Bravo.
“Without words I can’t return and easily remember and appreciate my life behind me,” Mexican-American Sergio Troncoso writes. “I can’t see the road I traveled and how much I changed. Without words, I feel as I have never existed.”
In his two recently released books, Crossing Borders: Personal Essays and the novel From This Wicked Patch of Dust, Troncoso tries to bring more meaning to his life and the world….
One of the
characters, like Troncoso, goes to college at Harvard and becomes a writer,
marries a Jewish woman who works in the finance industry and raises two sons in
The stories are told in vignettes that capture a moment in time….Troncoso avoids clichés, with one character going through an interesting and surprising transformation in the book.
Troncoso is an elegant writer whose work will make readers grateful that he writes his life down.
---The Hispanic Reader
“An irresistible read, this compelling novel explores a family’s conflicted desires: to honor the past that connected them closely to one another and to embrace the future that launches them toward separate destinies- to belong and to be free. Sergio Troncoso delivers a moving and unforgettable story of Cuauhtémoc and Pilar Martinez in search of a better life for their four children, despite the dawning apprehension that pursuit of such a dream might ultimately cost a family much more than relentless self-sacrifice and unflinching toil.”
---Lorraine Lopez, author of The Gifted Galbadón Sisters and Homicide Survivors Picnic and Other Stories
Troncoso graduated from Harvard, studied philosophy at Yale, and was a
Fulbright Scholar in
My father once
said, “College may be the worst thing that ever happens to you.” Not a college
man himself, he wanted educated kids, even though he feared it might erode the
family—a common worry among parents who want better for their children than
they had themselves.
migrants Pilar and Cuauhtémoc Martínez
move their young family to Ysleta Pueblo, the oldest village in
his novel by dates, giving snapshots of important moments in his characters’
lives. For Julia, the adventurous daughter, 1966 is a bad year. The Beatles are
on the radio, and she, a teenager in a shack without electricity. After high
school, she gets out. She dabbles in college, travels abroad, taps her parents’
bank account again and again, and finally finds herself in the Muslim faith
raising a family in
Julia and Ismael identify deeply with their adopted Muslim and
Israeli cultures. They can’t speak to each other without arguing. And their
mother, Pilar, can’t stop fretting about her
headstrong children. In the end, Pilar laments ever
But it’s not all dread and regret. The family argues, yes, and they worry, but they stay in touch—in two languages. Spanish peppers the English in these pages. Spanglish. A wonderful hybrid that expresses mutating cultures.
From This Wicked Patch of Dust is an ambitious book, full of insight into complex American identity. I wouldn’t call it a page-turner. Because Troncoso tells the story in snapshots, the characters don’t really drive the plot. They serve the ideas behind the story. Still, there’s wisdom in these pages and compassion for fragmented families in a mobile, complicated world.
Sergio Troncoso's new novel, From This Wicked Patch of Dust, is a tightly focused and affecting work of fiction that has much to say about family, fidelity, religion and politics without ever seeming heavy-handed and pedantic.
Troncoso's prose is crisp and clear, with nary a wasted word, and he manages to deftly handle numerous storylines over a long period of time in just 240 pages….
When the novel
begins, Pilar and Cuauhtémoc Martínez
have just moved to Ysleta,
Part of this success lies in Troncoso's characters, each of which is given a distinct personality and appearance, with verbal and physical mannerisms that can be easily imagined in the reader's mind. As we watch these characters develop, we see their personality traits as children inform the choices they make as adults and ultimately manifest themselves as habits and/or neuroses. For example, as a child, Ismael, the youngest, is uncommonly bright, and we see this carry throughout his high school years as he becomes editor of the school newspaper, and then earns a scholarship to an Ivy League university. But at the same time, we see Ismael's shyness as a child come out in his constant fear of being rejected and his sense of being a fraud in any new or unfamiliar setting.
If any character is
given short shrift, it is the eldest child, Julieta/Aliyah.
Her transformation—from a slightly rebellious and sullen teenager, to a Central
American freedom fighter, to a Muslim convert living in
Troncoso's novel also succeeds because of his ability to summarize in a clear, concise way—a necessary skill when skipping five or 10 years between sections. Early in the book, Troncoso sums up Pilar and Cuauhtémoc's courtship and move to the United States in just a few pages. Like many contemporary authors, Troncoso wants his novel to reflect the diversity of American life, and he does so by working in elements of history, philosophy, economics and more. But it's Troncoso's restraint and brevity that make his digressions engaging and meaningful. Take, for example, his summary of a method for calculating elevations that Cuauhtémoc uses in his work as a draftsman, which sheds light on his abilities and ultimately his success:
"Ándale pues." The ‘new method’ was the one valuable skill
Cuauhtémoc had salvaged from his brief foray into
This is not simply the author showing his diversity of knowledge, but also an interesting tidbit that helps explain something about the novel's main character—in this case, how Cuauhtémoc's knowledge of this calculation helped him succeed in his job, which has specific importance and implications for other aspects of the novel.
This Wicked Patch of Dust, Sergio Troncoso has constructed a heartfelt
and believable portrait of a family growing apart and coming together again as
the individuals succeed in
This is the story of an immigrant family in search of the American dream.
The novel begins in
1966 with the
The four children, however, take different paths as they enter in contact with realities very different from their childhoods.
Ismael, the youngest of the brothers, receives a scholarship
to help him attend
Tears of joy stream down Pilar’s face when she hears the news from her son, but the grandmother, however, begs him not to go, because he will feel so lonely so far from from his family.
Narrated from the different perspective of each family member, the novel questions the significance of family when distance and new loyalties intervene. The novel presents a complex image of family dynamics and the forces that operate to define where we belong.
---Spanish News Agency EFE
This Wicked Patch of Dust sweeps through a tumult of time from the
mid-60s and through 9/11 and its aftermath. As the novel whirls in and out of
expanding cultural identities--Mexican and American, poor, ambitious, and
smart, Catholic, Muslim, and even Jewish--and yet stays centered on a family in
the borderlands of Ysleta, it details a past that is more the cultural future.
---Dagoberto Gilb, author of The Magic of Blood and The Flowers
From This Wicked Patch of Dust is a breath of fresh air compared to novels populated with winos, dysfunctional families, men who beat and abandon their partners, alienated children. Sergio Troncoso doesn’t lean on tumultuous social and family upheaval to craft an arresting story of mom, dad, two sons, a daughter, and cultural migration. There's upheaval indeed, but Troncoso keeps it just outside the right margin, in the space between the turning pages.
Despite the ominous tone of its title, From This Wicked Patch of Dust, is a novel about decisions, luck, and the pursuit of happiness in the early 21st century. The title is not a facile metaphor but irony borne of a young mother’s frustration. Brought to her knees the day she moves to Ysleta, Pilar shakes a handful of dirt and repudiates this place’s wickedness. By dint of determination, hard work and good character, Pilar and her family will prosper on this patch of dust.
Read an excerpt of From This Wicked Patch of Dust and Troncoso’s short essay on his blog Chico Lingo, Why I Wrote From This Wicked Patch of Dust. Please feel free to use his discussion questions for the novel for writing classes and workshops.