Catherine Barnes—shocked to discover her marriage isn’t what she thought it was—travels to Guatemala for some soul searching. She takes along her rebellious fourteen-year-old son Isaac, intending to leave him with his tough-love aunt, while she paints pictures for a children’s book. In the remote mountain village of Todos Santos she falls under the spell of a rugged landscape and its welcoming, tenacious Mayan inhabitants. Just as she starts to feel at home in earthy kitchens where women pat out tortillas and tell her the stories of their lives, she discovers that Isaac is missing. Kidnappers are on their way to collect ransom from her in Todos Santos.
Mother and son confront rumors of foreign baby-snatchers and devil-worshippers, and threats of unexpected violence, as they search for each other. In finding Isaac, Catherine discovers that she must also find herself. Drawing on a deep knowledge of and empathy for Guatemala, and compellingly written, Todos Santos is ultimately a story of love, motherhood, and the hard choices we make.
—Joyce Maynard, author of To Die For and At Home in the World
—Lesley Dormen, author of The Best Place to Be
—Holly MacArthur, Managing Editor, Tin House
What about Guatemala fascinated you so much that you decided on it as a setting for your first novel?
Since my first trip to Guatemala in 1978, I’ve loved the country for its spectacular landscape, its friendly people, and its strong connection to its pre-colonial past. Our country seems very young compared to Guatemala. I was drawn to the contrast between a small, homogeneous, mostly indigenous, mostly rural culture with our own huge, heterogeneous, technologically advanced, powerful nation. Every time I came back to New York or suburban New Jersey after several months in Guatemala, I felt like I was looking at familiar scenes with an almost unnerving clarity, as if I’d taken some sort of strange truth serum.
By putting Catherine into this setting, where she’s a foreigner in a strange culture, I hoped to give her a similar jolt. She also discovers, as I have, the commonalities in human experience across cultural borders.
How much time did you spend in Guatemala while working on the novel?
I came back from my first visit to Todos Santos, where I spent one night in 1998, and told a friend about it, at length. I must have sounded pretty excited, because she said, “That’s it. That’s your novel.” (At the time, I didn’t know I was writing a novel). I went back in 2000 and spent a month, in the hotel that inspired the Todosantero. (It’s no longer there). I still wasn’t working on the novel, but rather a short story set in Washington State. By the time I returned, in 2001, to stay for a year, and write the first draft of the novel, I’d already spent more time in Todos Santos than Catherine did.
In Todos Santos, there is a very troubling scene in which a group of tourists is attacked and one of them is lynched. Can you talk about the actual story that this is based on and how the event in your novel differs?
The lynching happened in April of 2000, just after I’d bought my ticket to spend the month of July in Todos Santos. The US State Department immediately issued a warning. I went anyway. I interviewed many people and got many versions of the story. There was no way I could keep it out of the novel. It happened very much as it is described in the novel, except that there was no Baudilio, no crazy xenophobic preacher. The town was never closed off to tourists. In fact, I encountered very little xenophobia in Todos Santos. In some rural villages there is suspicion and fear of outsiders, but not in Todos Santos.
Of course, there was no Isaac or Catherine either. The mayor did get on the bullhorn and call on everyone to count their children, to see if any were missing. The fear of baby-snatchers and devil worshippers was real; some things you can’t make up. The remorse afterward was also real. However, I wasn’t there, so I had to make up the details.
As a visual artist yourself, how do you feel that your relationship to elements such as color, texture, and scale informed your writing? Also, how do you think this informed Catherine’s character and perspectives?
I’m always intensely affected by my visual surroundings, and when I write, I have to see the scene, as if I’m watching a movie. However, you don’t have to be an artist to experience the overwhelming importance of color in Guatemala. The colors and textures of the hand woven fabrics that all the indigenous women wear go back deep into their cultural traditions. Color has symbolic meaning for them.
A small, mountainous country, Guatemala feels much bigger than it is. Maybe it’s the bad roads, and how long it takes to get from one place to another, especially if you’re using public transportation, which I always do there. Maybe it’s the mountainsides, rising thousands of feet, making you feel small, or that fact that wherever you wander into rugged wilderness, there’s always a footpath, a boy herding sheep, a piece of red thread, caught on a bush, reminding you with intimate touches that people are everywhere around you. I don’t know if being an artist made me more aware of the great contrasts of scale I encountered in Guatemala, at every level, but if it did, then Catherine must have picked up on it. Like me, she’s an observer.
Motherhood is a major theme in Todos Santos, especially the differences in Catherine’s American views on motherhood and traditional Guatemalan mothering practices. How important do you think parenting practices are in cultural identity?
Babies in Guatemala spend the first year of life bound tightly to their mothers, slung either across the breast or the back. They are almost never out of physical contact. There are no play dates, no bouncy swings, no outward facing baby-packs encouraging them to explore the world. Babies and children are part of everyday life, universally adored by men as well as women. Children are criticized for being individualistic, and encouraged to conform in the communal life of the culture. In these ways, child-rearing there is different than in our culture, where children are encouraged young to pursue their uniqueness. How many times are American children told to be leaders, not followers?
At bottom, however, all parents want the same for their children: happiness and success. And their worries are pretty similar, as Catherine found out.