My last book review was for On a Cold Road by Dave Bidini. This time, I’ll talk about another Canada Reads book – the one that actually won the contest.
About the book: Carmen Aguirre was born in Chile, and lived there with her family until Pinochet’s coup in 1973. After the coup, they fled to Vancouver and supported Chile’s resistance movement from afar. A few years after entering Canada, however, Aguirre’s parents split and her mother started a relationship with a Canadian political activist.
Ultimately, Aguirre, her sister, and her stepfather left Vancouver (and Aguirre’s father) behind and returned to Latin America, travelling between Bolivia, Brazil, and Argentina to support the movement against Pinochet. Something Fierce documents the reality of living a double life – bourgeois importers and teachers on one hand, and underground revolutionaries on the other – as Aguirre shuttles back and forth between Canada and Latin America and lives in a state of perpetual uncertainty.
What I liked: This book provides a rare and detailed glimpse into the life of being an underground revolutionary, and the stresses that such a life entails. Imagine being tailed by a government operative – how do you move around in a supermarket so as to avoid suspicion and evade capture? Suppose that your parents have been absent from your hotel room for over 24 hours, and you have to notify the other members in your underground cell by dialing a phone number you don’t know, speaking a strange code, burning all evidence of the paper the number was written down on, flushing the ashes down the toilet, and waiting for your rescuer to pick you up – could you remember what to do or say?
Aguirre doesn’t flinch from discussing the hazards of underground life, like wallpapering a safe house in newspaper so that any revolutionaries detained by the police wouldn’t be able to give a meaningful description of what it looked like inside. The riotous life and colour in La Paz, and Aguirre’s happiness to be there, are thoroughly evoked. Amazingly, Aguirre doesn’t play the my-childhood-was-miserable game that so many other memoirists do. I was constantly surprised by how little anger she directed towards her family for dragging her into a world so full of danger, violence, and fear.
What I disliked: Despite the vivid detail Aguirre includes about the demands of being a revolutionary and the excitement of living in Latin America, I still never got a sense of who the characters were as people. Aguirre mentions several times that Bob Everton, her stepfather, had a temper that could flare up at a moment’s notice, but this is described rather than experienced, and his outbursts are never explained – was he a naturally angry man, or was he reacting to the stress of living a double life?
In addition, I also wanted to know more about Aguille’s sister, Ale. It’s hinted throughout Something Fierce that Ale wasn’t nearly as accepting of the family’s political activities as Aguirre was. The author acknowledges at the end of the book that Ale wanted her story to remain private; Aguirre does her best to fulfill her sister’s wishes, but that comes at the expense of sidelining her. I think it would have been interesting to see more clearly how Ale’s opinions and desires dissented from those of the rest of her family.
Other pivotal events in the story were discussed, but felt underdeveloped and glossed over. These include Aguirre meeting and marrying her compañero Alejandro, the revelation that that her seemingly pro-Pinochet grandmother was also part of the resistance movement, and the family’s subsequent decision to alternate routinely between living in Vancouver and living in Latin America.
Finally, because this is a book about Latin American politics, it contains a lot of information needed to get the reader up to speed. If you know a lot about 20th-Century Latin American history already, you’ll breeze through the summaries Aguirre inserts, but otherwise, it gets a bit infodump-y.
The verdict: Although there were flaws, I enjoyed Something Fierce. Its strengths lie in evoking a time and a place and in describing the various subterfuges needed to participate in an underground resistance while living a “normal” life to avoid suspicion. I have a profound respect for Aguirre’s tenacity and her continued love for her family despite the danger that her mother and stepfather exposed her to.
Next up: Mort, by Terry Pratchett.