Michener's Mexico

James A. Michener’s Mexico is 672 pages of historical fiction that takes the rich and varied history of Mexico, its people and places, throws them all together in a bag, shakes them up and dumps them out like puzzle pieces all across the country.

If you know very little of Mexican history or have visited few Mexican cities, reading Michener’s Mexico might confuse you or worse yet, convince you, it is a history lesson. Fiction like that can be scary, as it is a fictionalized account and its cities, stories and races a conglomeration of many things, it risks un-educating you. You learn to distrust its every claim and worry you don’t know enough to know the difference. But if you are reasonably confident in your knowledge and feel sure you won’t be led astray, this could be the part you enjoy most. The unexpected joy of unraveling the thread of inspiration, which structure, which city, which story or which historical figure, inspired what. And recognizing the familiar truths behind the fictions can give you great confidence in your knowledge of Mexican history.

If you view it that way, an entertaining brain teaser, Michener’s Mexico becomes not just the sweeping historical tale of Mexico, but the ultimate Mexophile beach read. Complete with history and a wealth of possible trivia questions: how many cities do you think Michener drew from to create the fictional main character, the city of Toledo? The beautifully executed opening scene of Clay walking into town brought to mind vivid near photo-quality recollections of four or five different Mexican cities, four or five different Mexican experiences, each vying in my imagination for the distinction of which it most resembled. These recognitions accompanied with flashes of my own memories persisted throughout the novel, making it at once a convergence of Michener’s Mexico and mine. This ability to vividly evoke on the page a place or time in history is the incredible talent of the Pulitzer Prize winner, and when in 1992 James A. Michener turned his microscopic glare on Mexico, what emerged was a classic.

Michener’s Mexico is a pageantry of history, stretching from the earliest civilizations in Mexico to the 20th century, all intricately tied to the history of one multi-national family and how its story becomes the story of Mexico. He weaves a bold tapestry that brings the flavor and essence of the people throughout many time periods. With a hugely diverse cast of characters spanning centuries, Michener manages to paint a portrait of Mexico that can only be heartbreaking and bloody, yet glorious, complete with all the conflicting emotions, honest appraisals and innumerable tragedies that must accompany the history of any nation. A sweeping epic tale found in most every respectable ex-pat library and a delightful beach read, whether you are just beginning your love affair with Mexico or have been in the rocky relationship for years.

-Originally published, ADIP November 2005