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BOOK REVIEW

'Conquistadora’ revives history but not all its characters

By Julie Wittes Schlack
Globe Correspondent / August 12, 2011

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In good historical fiction, vivid characters inhabit a specific time; in great historical fiction, their time inhabits the characters. But even mediocre books in this genre can serve as the sauce that helps readers eat their vegetables, masking the taste of all those facts about the olden days with an engaging protagonist and fast-paced story.

So where does “Conquistadora,’’ the new novel from Esmeralda Santiago (author of the popular memoir “When I Was Puerto Rican’’), sit in this spectrum? Nowhere neat. The vegetables - a history of Puerto Rico’s sugar plantations and slave trade during the waning days of Spanish colonialism in the mid-1800s - are fresh and bold in their own right. It’s the sauce that’s watery and bland, with characters who start out flat and, strangely, become even more one-dimensional as the novel progresses.

As the only living child of elderly parents, living in an affluent, stifling, and loveless home in Sevilla, Ana Larragoity looks forward to summers with her maternal grandfather at his farm in Huelva. There she learns to ride horses, shoot a rifle, slaughter the farm animals, and feels more free and capable than when trapped behind the walls of her convent school. And there she reads the letters and journals of one of her ancestors, a soldier in the service of Ponce de Leon.

“She was a girl,’’ the author tells us, “cloistered and swaddled in the expectations of her class, but she identified with the audacity of the conquistadores, with the confidence that, if they turned their backs on country, family, and custom, they could make fortunes and more exciting lives through the work of their hands, the might of their swords.’’

With great dispatch, Santiago creates the opportunity for her protagonist to do just that. By page 44, she has established Ana’s close and erotic relationship with her friend Elena, married off the 18-year-old heroine to Elena’s cousin, Ramon, and sent the newly married couple, along with Ramon’s twin brother, Inocente, off to Puerto Rico to manage the brothers’ late uncle’s sugar plantation. There the threesome meets Severo Fuentes, a cobbler’s son from Spain who, by dint of his strength, intellect, and determination, is not only now the foreman of the plantation, but a wealthy landlord and slave owner in his own right. Predictably, he is also handsome and virile - the Rhett Butler to Ana’s Scarlett O’Hara.

What happens to these four central characters next almost doesn’t matter. The seasons change, children are born and die, neighbors come and go, hurricanes and cholera ravage the land and the people who farm it, and throughout, Ana’s knowledge and commitment expands along with her acreage and yield. She develops an almost mystical connection to Tara, er, El Destino, the plantation to which she has staked her future.

Instead, the book’s greatest strength lies in its dissection of the systematic enslavement and oppression of people without which the large-scale planting, harvesting, processing, and transporting of sugar was impossible. Santiago’s language is most animated in her depiction of slavery: how the cane is cut; how the slaves doing the cutting are themselves sown, hacked, transported, and traded; how the colonists struggle to maintain the system in the face of slave revolts fueled by insurrections in Haiti, St. Croix, Martinique, and ultimately, by the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States.

In Ana, Santiago creates a woman consciously at odds with her culture, chafing at her own oppression, and reluctant but willing to oppress others in order to achieve her own freedom. Though the plot of “Conquistadora’’ is thin and the characterizations are flat, in Ana’s uneasy rationalization of the brutal, unsustainable system on which these dreams depend, Santiago fleetingly achieves the hallmark of great historical fiction - she makes her protagonist a woman of her times.

Julie Wittes Schlack, a writer living in Cambridge, can be reached at jwschlack@gmail.com.

CONQUISTADORA By Esmeralda Santiago

Knopf

432 pp., $27.50