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Woman of Light

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Book review: 'Woman of Light' a luminous, powerful multigenerational saga

Kali Fajardo–Anstine’s work has been on my radar for a while, and her début novel, “Woman of Light” is one of my most anticipated releases of the year. I was so happy to get the chance to review Fajardo–Anstine’s latest. It did not disappoint.

“Woman of Light” begins with the story of a woman known as the “Sleepy Prophet” in the American West. She is gifted with the sight, and her story unfolds when she finds a baby abandoned in the night. Readers soon learn an abbreviated life story of these characters. This multigenerational saga then begins to explore the lives of women from subsequent generations. We meet Maria Josefina, who would do anything for her family, and her niece, Luz, who has inherited the sight.

The story of this Indigenous Chicano family is not told chronologically and instead moves back and forth in time. As the novel expands, however, certain themes begin to build across the generations. Fajardo–Anstine does not shy away from controversial issues such as poverty and racism. And though the fragmentation of this novel, as well as certain events that happen over the course of its pages, suggest that this is a novel in which intergenerational trauma plays a key role, the family’s love for each other makes it feel luminous and hopeful.

When I initially began this book, I was unsure whether it should be called a novel at all. The first leaps between the generations were quite jarring, and it was difficult to see how Fajardo-Anstine would make this story of disparate pieces into a cohesive whole. Yet, the author eventually pulls the threads together beautifully, and I was strongly reminded of “Crooked Hallelujah” by Kelli Jo Ford, which takes a similar approach in its storytelling.

The characters and setting of this powerful and poignant novel are vivid, and Fajardo-Anstine’s voice is entirely her own. And I can say truthfully that, although one can draw comparisons to other novels (Aspects of “To Kill a Mockingbird” come to mind), this novel feels original and vital. And while Fajardo-Anstine explores some challenging themes, there are stark moments of happiness and love between the characters, and the sadness never feels as though it is too much to bear. Instead, as it should, love wins out.

Ashley Riggleson is a freelance reviewer from Rappahannock County

This review was originally published in the Free-Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, VA.

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In 1930s Denver, Luz is distraught when her older brother is run off by a white mob. She survives on her earnings as a laundress and tea leaf reader, but finds a new purpose when she starts having visions of her ancestors on the nearby Indigenous Lost Territory. As Luz pieces together her visions, she understands that she is the only person who can preserve her family’s history.

I really enjoyed the historical setting, atmospheric descriptions of the American West, and magical elements in this story. It's a fascinating concept, and I totally love listening to Kali Fajardo-Anstine talk about what inspired her to write it. I definitely wanted to learn more about some of the characters and get a fuller picture of their lives!

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One of the first books I bought early on in the pandemic was Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s short story collection, Sabrina & Corina. When I saw she was releasing a full length novel, I knew immediately that I needed to read it as soon as possible.

Fajardo-Anstine is one of the most artful writers working today. She has such a way with words that immediately pull you into the setting through descriptive language and strong characters. I am a huge fan of multi-generational stories, and this one does not disappoint. It is a wonderful take on westerns that actually demonstrates how diverse and multi-cultural the west was by centering the story around an Indigenous Chicano family. This story feels so personal as you can tell the author is writing for her own family and using inspiration from her own family history.

The main character of Luz is so relatable in that she often makes the wrong decision. Although there are elements of love stories in this, the real love story is definitely about a family and how it has survived decades of hardship, poverty, racism, etc. The women in this story are so inspiring in their resilience and their love for one another.

This story also has elements of magical realism which I always appreciate. The family definitely has a history of being in touch with more psychic abilities, and it lends a very interesting note to the story. The jump in timelines was sometimes disorienting, but it definitely helped to build a sense of who this family was and always has been. I will end this review on a quote from the book as it really sums up what this book is about, “I think everything that’s ever happened or going to happen to us and the people we love is around said Luz. All we have to do is reach for it.”

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As a Colorado Native, and a Lopez from the San Luis Valley, this book immediately resonated with me. Based in Denver in the 1930s, we follow Luz "Little Light" Lopez as she finds her own path in the city while also being the door to her family's past. Luz has a special talent in tea reading. She is used to reading the futures for those who ask, but then she starts having strong visions of her ancestors and all their struggles.

There are chapters that jump back in time to tell the story of Luz's grandparents and great-grandparents giving this book a multigenerational feel. I enjoyed both the present and past chapters and the characters that come with them.

Kali Fajardo-Anstine does a great job shedding light on to the struggles Chicano families faced in Colorado in the early 20th century, especially the women. Luz is a great main character because she is smart, brave, and resourceful, but she is not perfect and her flaws are very human. My only gripe is that I wanted to know Luz more. I wanted to be more in her head and feel more of her feelings.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book and thank NetGalley for the advanced copy. This book is now available so go grab your copy!

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Beautifully written novel about a time in our country’s history that is underrepresented: Mexican Americans in the early 20th century. Set in Denver, I learned so much about the plight of these people and how brutally they were treated by their white fellow Americans. A story about women and the resilience and persistence they have was inspiring. Although parts dragged for me, I was completely absorbed in the grandparents’ story. Heartfelt thanks to One World publishers for the advanced copy. This is one on a lot of “must read” lists and I’m so grateful I was given the opportunity to do just that.

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Thank you to Netgalley and Random House Publishing Group for the ARC in exchange for a honest review

3.5 stars rounded up

This book was haunting. It was a beautifully written story that transcended generations. Writing a story about a Mexican-Native American family in the mountainous west at the turn of the century had to have been difficult; reading about the hardships and the racial treatment from white men and women was difficult on my end so I can imagine what writing it felt like. However, it's a part of our history and to forget would be to put us in a position to repeat ourselves.

I thought the author did a good job showing the family's journey to how they got to where they are today, and the interwoven storylines painted a struggle that was incredibly humbling. Unfortunately the part that I felt was a bit disconnected were the parts that took place in the "today" (Or in this case, Denver 1933). I thought the flashbacks were well grounded in storytelling, but the present time I felt like was a bit out of place. Some of the behaviors for Luz didn't make sense; the flashbacks made it seem like they influenced her decisions and her thoughts, but her actions in the present time didn't support that. The storyline with David and Avel I didn't like; throughout every flashback the author portrayed the women in Luz' family as strong and determined; surviving when everything is against them doing so. This storyline made Luz seem weak and reliant on men, and I felt it didn't do the women in her family justice, especially Maria Josie. However, I loved how the author had Diego return to face the consequences of his actions- when history showed the men of his family turning their cheeks and abandoning them, he returned to his family to continue his legacy.

Overall I enjoyed this story. I don't always enjoy reading historical fiction, but I really enjoyed this one

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"The radio smelled of dust and minerals, and in some ways reminded Luz of reading tea leaves. They were similar, weren’t they? She saw images and felt feelings delivered to her through dreams and pictures. Maybe those images rode invisible waves, too? Maybe Luz was born with her own receiver. She laughed, considering how valuable such a thing must be, a radio built into the mind."
"Maria Josie insisted Diego and Luz must learn the map, as she called it, and she showed them around first on foot and later by streetcar. She wore good walking shoes, and dressed herself and the children in many layers. It tends to heat up, she had said, another moment, it might hail. The siblings learned to be cautious. It was dangerous to stroll through mostly Anglo neighborhoods, their streetcar routes equally unsafe. There were Klan picnics, car races, cross burnings on the edge of the foothills, flames like tongues licking the canyon walls, hatred reaching into the stars."

There is a lot going on in this novel, so buckle up. Focused on the experiences of 17/18 year-old Luz Lopez--the Woman of Light of the story--in Depression-era Denver, the story alternates between her contemporary travails and the lives of her ancestors. The beginning is very Moses-like, a swaddling Pidre being left by his mother on the banks of an arroyo in The Lost Territory in 1868. We follow Pidre and his children and grandchildren into the 1930s. All have special qualities. Among them, Luz, his granddaughter, reads tea leaves, seeing visions of both past and future. Diego, his grandson, would definitely belong to House Slytherin in a different universe. He tames and performs with rattlesnakes.

This is a story about stories, how telling them carries on identity, while ignoring them can help erase the culture of a people. Pidre is noted as a talented story-teller, urged, as he is given away, to remember your line. KFA remembers hers, giving a voice to Chicano-Indigenous history.

"My ancestors were incredibly hard working, generous, kind, and brilliant Coloradans. But they were also poor and brown and this meant our stories were only elevated within our communities. When I began writing seriously in my early twenties, I was reading books by James Baldwin, Sandra Cisneros, Edward P. Jones, and Katherine Anne Porter, and many, many others. I saw how these authors shined the spotlight on their people and I also wanted to write work that was incredibly sophisticated that honored my cultural group, making us more visible in the mainstream." - from the Pen America interview

Fajardo-Anstine brings a lot of her family’s history into this novel. Her great-aunt’s name is Lucy Lucero. In addition to the name of our protagonist, a second connection can be found in the name of the stream where Pidre is found, Lucero. An uncle was a snake charmer. An aunt worked in a Denver glass factory, as Luz’s aunt works in a mirror factory in the book. Her family had hidden from KKK, as characters do here. Her Belgian coal-miner father abandoned his family, as Luz and Diego’s father does here.

There is a feel to the book of family stories being told around a table, or in a living room, by elders, passing on what they know to those most recently arrived. Remember these tales, the speaker might say, and in doing so remember where you came from, so you can better know who your people are and ultimately who you are.

"As they hopped and skipped in and out of the archway lights, Luz imagined she was jumping between times. She saw herself as a little girl in the Lost Territory with her mother and father walking through snow fields, carrying fresh laundry to the company cabin. Then she saw herself in Hornet Moon with Maria Josie, beside the window to her new city, those few photographs of her parents scattered about the floor, the only remnants of them she had left. She saw herself eating Cream of Wheat for breakfast with Diego in the white-walled kitchen. They were listening to the radio, the summertime heat blowing in from the windows, the mountains far away behind the screen."

The racism that Luz and other confront is not subtle. A public park features a sign

This Park Belongs to WHITE PROTESTANTS

Luz is denied an opportunity to apply for a job because she is not white. A KKK march has a very pogrom-like, 1921-Tulsa-like feel.

Luz gets a chance to see the range of crimes going on in the city, when she gets a particular job. Sees how the system that is supposed to protect regular folks does anything but. The murder of a Hispanic activist by the police is not just a historical image, but a resonant reminder of police killing of civilians in today’s world, usually with little accountability. The more things change…

There is a magical element in this novel, that, when combined with the multi-generational structure, and richness of language, and, of course, her focus on particular groups of people, makes one think of Louise Erdrich. As to the first, among others, Luz receives visions while reading tea leaves, and at other times as well. An ancestor speaks with the dead. A saintly personage associated with mortality appears in the flesh. People appear who may or may not be physically present.

The ancestry begins with Pidre in 1868, but in his infancy we meet elders who reach back much further.

"The generation I knew in real life was born around 1912 and 1918. They would talk about the generation before—their parents, but also their grandparents. That meant I had firsthand knowledge spanning almost two hundred years. When I sat down to think about the novel and the world I was creating, I realized how far back in time I was able to touch just based on the oral tradition. My ancestors went from living a rural lifestyle—moving from town to town in mining camps, and before that living on pueblos and in villages—to being in the city, all within one generation. I found it fascinating that my great-grandma could have grown up with a dirt floor, not going to school, not being literate, and have a son graduate with his master’s degree from Colorado State University. To me, time was like space travel, and so when I decided on the confines of the novel, I knew it had to be the 1860s to 1930s." - from the Catapult interview

Luz is an appealing lead, smart, ambitious, mostly honorable, while beset by the slings and arrows of ethnic discrimination. Like Austen women, she is faced with a world in which, because of her class and ethnicity, making her own way in the world would be very tough without a husband. And, of course, the whole husband thing comes with its own baggage. Of course, the heart wants what it wants and she faces some challenges in how to handle what the world offers her. She does not always make the best choices, a flaw likely to endear her to readers even more than an antiseptic perfection might.

The supporting cast is dazzling, particularly for a book of very modest length (336p hardcover). From a kick-ass 19th century woman sharpshooter, to a civil rights lawyer with conflicting ambitions, from a gay mother-figure charged with raising children not her own to a successful Greek businessman, from Luz’s bff cuz to the men the two teens are drawn to, from an ancient seer to a corrupt politician, from…to…from…to… Fajardo-Astine gives us memorable characters, with color, texture, motivations, edges you can grab onto, elements to remember. It is an impressive group.

And the writing is beautiful. This is the opening:

"The night Fertudez Marisol Ortiz rode on horseback to the northern pueblo Pardona, a secluded and modest village, the sky was so filled with stars it seemed they hummed. Thinking this good luck, Fertudez didn’t cry as she left her newborn on the banks of an arroyo, turkey down wrapped around his body, a bear claw fastened to his chest.
“Remember your line,” she whispered, before she mounted her horse and galloped away.
In Pardona, Land of Early Sky, the elder Desiderya Lopez dreamt of stories in her sleep. The fireplace glowed in her clay home as she whistled snores through dirt walls, her breath dissipating into frozen night. She would have slept soundly until daybreak, but the old woman was pulled awake by the sounds of plodding hooves and chirping crickets, the crackling of burnt cedar, an interruption between dawn and day."

Really, after reading that, ya just have to keep on. One of the great strengths of this novel is its powerful use of imagery. There are many references to light, as one would expect. Water figures large, from Pidre’s introduction in the prologue, left by a stream, to our introduction to Luz and her aunt Maria Josie sitting together in Denver, near the banks where the creek and the river met, the city’s liquid center…, to a rescue from a flash flood, to an unborn buried near a river, and more. A bear-claw links generations. This makes for a very rich reading experience.

I felt that the narrative fizzled toward the end, as if, having accomplished the goal of presenting a family and group history, filling a vacuum, there was less need to tidy everything up, a quibble, given that the novel accomplishes its larger aims.

Kaji Fajardo-Astine’s 2019 short-story collection, Sabrina & Corina, made the finals for National Book Award consideration. You do not need to read tea leaves or have visions to see what lies ahead. Woman of Light, a first novel, illuminates that future quite clearly. By focusing a beacon on an under-told tale, Kaji Fajardo-Astine, is certain to have a brilliant career as one of our best novelists.

"Celia, Estevan’s sister. Luz listened and watched as she read her own words in her own voice. First in Spanish and then in English. The crowd moved with each syllable, cries of anguish. A lamp unto my feet, a woman yelled behind Luz. A light unto my path."

Review posted – June 17, 2022

Publication date – June 7, 2022

For the full review, with links and EXTRA STUFF take a look on my site, -

I received a digital ARE of Woman of Light from One World in return for a fair review. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

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I read an advanced copy of Woman of Light and thank the publisher and NetGalley by giving this honest review.

Woman of Light was not a fast read, but more than made up for that by the exquisite use of words. This historical fiction book has so much to offer about generations of Chicano women, their life, poverty, racism and love of family. I do hope that Kali Fajardo-Anstine will write again.

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Woman of Light “spans five generations of an Indigenous Chicano family in the American West” and I recommend this novel to lovers of historical fiction and indigenous stories.

The setting of Denver and its surrounding areas especially appealed to me, as I have not read historical fiction specifically set in Colorado, a favorite destination.

Woman of Light opens in the late 1800s and moves between timelines including the influx of miners to the area and, later, urban life in the 1930s. I found the various lineages interesting as our main character’s past is traced back to ancestors from a variety of cultures. The novel explores the past, destiny, race, gender, sexuality, independence, poverty, family, friendship, and more. The racial tensions and dynamics between a range of cultures living in Denver was a highlight of the novel, while Luz’s story also serves as a coming-of-age story against this backdrop.

Reviews posted on Goodreads Michelle Beginandendwithbooks and IG and FB @beginandendwithbooks

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Thank you to One World for the advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Fajardo-Anstine has created such a beautiful story with this book. The story is expertly woven throughout time and family members. You see the family's origin story, all the way up through three generations. It shifts timelines and POVs expertly. The characters are unique and complex, and you see how their family history has shaped them. This book also examines some difficult parts of history including the oil & gas industry taking over Indigenous land in the Southwest and racism against Hispanics and Indigenous people in Denver in the 1930s.

This is definitely a story you'll want to pick up this year.

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This is a book about Denver Colorado, about the lives and histories of the Hispanic and indigenous people in the early to mid-1900s and the injustices done to them - a story with lots of stories. The main protagonist Luz, the Woman of Light has the power to read tea leaves and make predictions. She experiences visions about the past and future of her family and friends. The story spans multiple generations of Luz's family and portrays their resilience and grit in their fight to survive and protect their families. Some of the instances of racial discrimination resonate even in the present. The author has done a decent job of touching upon the significant historical events and culture of the time. I would have preferred the characters to have more depth though. I felt the story ended abruptly, I would have liked to know what happens further with Luz, her brother Diego, her cousin Lizette and her two love interests David and Avel. It was overall an OK read.

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I did not finish this book, I don’t know what it is but I couldn’t get into this book. Wasn’t for me.
Thank you to netgalley for giving me the chance to try it.

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Special thanks to Random house publishing, Random House and NetGalley for the ARC of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

What a wonderful book. Little Luz, the tea reader and her older brother, the snake charmer, of the Luz family. Indigenous people. The story takes place in. the 20's and 30's here so there is a lot of strife and a lot of struggle for these people, all trying to stay together and survive.

I really loved Luz,. She was a little cute thing but as she grows older and moves away, she wants to go back and find family and unity and how they survived in the 20's and 30's where there is never too much hope.. This is how we should behave today with light (Luz in Spanish) and love and sticking together through love and togetherness.. Beautifully written, although I go for a bit darker stories, this author Kali canard on and time writes beautifully. 3.5-rounded to a 4 because this little and through the years, big girl,, stole my heart with her beautiful voice.

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I definitely did not have the same reaction to this book as so many other readers. I really wanted to like it, especially after reading the prologue, but then it felt like a different book. Fajardo-Anstine's writing is beautiful, but this was a little bit of a letdown from my expectations. *Advance copy provided by the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

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A sweeping multigenerational story- you don't really know HOW the timelines are related although astute readers will guess. The characters were well-formed and the book tackled some difficult topics with grace.

I received an electronic copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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This was a beautifully written novel and wonderfully descriptive, and one that kept me engrossed throughout.
It tells a story of a Mexican American family over generations, but the story mainly takes place in Denver , Colorado in the 1930's where we witness, prejudice and violence against the Mexicans, and Native Americans. This was a theme throughout the book,and it looks like history hasn't changed much now in present day. This part of the story saddened me as it never really showed people of different ethnicity ever really getting along.
The characters are wonderful, each bringing a little bit of something different to the story, yet all with the same goal of making family number one in their lives, a keeping their history alive.
I would like to thank NetGalley and Random House Publishing Group for a copy of this book.

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I feel torn on this one. The writing was at times beautiful and poetic, at other times confusing and choppy. This was a slow moving story that had aspects that were really engaging. Overall, not my favorite, but an interesting tale.

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A multigenerational drama with an interesting cast of characters. The prologue was so strong but I found myself wanting that same intensity for the rest of the book. The pacing was slower than I’d expected, and I’d wanted more to happen in the book overall.

I learned a lot from the book from a historical perspective. I haven’t read much about 1930s in the West, and from a Chicano/Indigenous perspective. That alone made it worth reading.

Thank you to NetGalley for an eARC widget.

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Woman of Light tells us the story of several generations of a family living in the American West in the early 1900's. They have indigenous and Mexican roots and therefore are considered less than. At every turn, in every generation we see the limitations of their lives and what they are able to do and achieve, who they are able to love and how easily they are taken advantage of and abused. We get three stories, the most modern of which centers upon Luz and Diego living in the 1930's - they are both trying to advance themselves and are continually knocked down by the world. But they are also quite short-sighted at the sacrifices and pain their aunt, parents and grandparents had to endure to give them the chances they have. Slowly through alternating chapters we learn more about this family and the generational pain and repeated ways they were taken advantage of.

I love a multi-generational story as well as early American life stories. I am grateful to hear / read one focused on the marginalized, the cultures whose stories were previously told by the white majority and therefore were portrayed as villains or lazy. This story tells you the truth, the ease with which these hardworking people who dreamed of more, were constantly held back. That treatment, the violence and insults are not easy to read, but important to acknowledge and experience.

I alternated listening to this one via ALC thanks to Libro.FM and reading it via the generosity of the publisher via Netgalley. The narrator was fabulous in the audio version. I ultimately went on to purchase a copy of the novel. All opinions above are my own.

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Kali Fajardo-Anstine is a fantastic writer. This story blew me away and I could not say enough good things about it. The writing was beautiful and it stayed with me even after I finished it. I cannot wait to recommend this book to everyone.

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