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-by Virginia Stem Owens

Waiting for the Great Good Thing

If I said that The River Beyond the World opens in a village in rural Mexico where a young teenage girl gets pregnant during an ancient peyote fertility ritual, you might get the wrong idea about this book. Janet Peery's novel is neither a paean to elan vital eroticism in the D. H. Lawrence tradition nor a feminist fantasy about the lost age of goddesses. Instead, it embraces both the comedy and tragedy of classes and cultures that do not so much clash as grate against one another in the characters of two women. And above all, this 1996 nominee for a National Book Award is about forgiveness and grace.

Though the story begins in the 1940s, Luisa Cantu's village of Salsipuedes (the name means "Leave if you can") has yet to be touched by the Enlightenment. The Mennonite teacher there, a conscientious objector to the war, struggles against the town's prevailing fatalism to instill literacy and the gospel in its children. Luisa proves his most promising pupil, her eagerness and innocence equally poignant:

Even after [the teacher] stopped reading, his stories went on inside her and it seemed she walked around in them, knowing all the people. Once, on her way back down the hill after school, the story of the three crosses on the hill came back to her, horrible and wrong, and no one had done a thing to stop it. Back along the crooked street she had run to tell him that if she had been there, she would have fought with the soldiers and the king, she would have taken off the crown of thorns and put cool water in the cup, not vinegar, she would not have let it happen.

As Luisa yearns toward the enormous destiny she hears in those stories, she feels called to "do some great, good thing" in the way adolescents often do. She waits during the summer for her vaguely apprehended future to materialize. Before the teacher returns in the fall, however, that fate has been chosen for her--the leading role in the fertility rite. Then her mother dies, and Luisa, pregnant, heads north of the ...

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