LAND OF MILK AND MONEY by Anthony Barcellos
The extended family is the battleground upon which most of us have earned our few medals as well as our many scars. Anthony Barcello’s combatants are four generations of the large Francisco family and their Salazar cousins. The novel opens on the battlefield itself with a trial in which the Salazar branch of the family challenges the authenticity of matriarch Teresa Francisco’s will. The trial, which begins each major section of the novel, is the chronological spine that holds the complex – and far from linear — plot together and, until the characters themselves take on a life of their own, keeps the reader interested with that age-old question: what happens next? The author helpfully presents us with a family tree as his frontispiece and the reader will, at least at first, need to refer to it many times, for the chapters that follow treat time haphazardly, sometimes skipping decades and generations between any two chapters, in what at first seems random choices, though a subtle pattern later appears. Each chapter is headed with the month and the year, saving the reader reams of unnecessary exposition. They vary in length and interest, from the merely anecdotal to the long, brilliantly orchestrated, hilariously funny, and at the same time touching, wedding of the hapless Catarina Salazar to the reluctant and very drunk Kevin Lineman.
The Franciscos own a large dairy farm in California’s Central Valley, with its subsidiary crops of alfalfa and, surprisingly, cotton. Much of Mr. Barcello’s encyclopedic knowledge of dairy farming one suspects comes from personal experience, but even more of it must come from serious research. Every tool or machine employed in the sowing, raising or harvesting of crops is described in loving, complex detail, as is the nurture, handling and transportation of the cows themselves. One chapter entitled “Green Cotton,” for example, could be used as a primer for anyone interested in the cultivation of that particular crop. The author’s abstruse knowledge, however, is never employed gratuitously, but invariably to establish some point of character (as in the above instance, the incompetent Candido’s attempts to “cut corners” which invariably end in disaster) or to advance the plot as is the case of the elaborate description of the marvelously complicated – and dangerous – machine used to harvest alfalfa which causes the young Trey’s (Candido III’s) life-changing accident. All of this information is presented with such consummate authority the reader never for an instance questions its accuracy.
In any such saga covering many generations of an immigrant family one of the obvious objectives is to show the gradual, but inexorable, assimilation of old world traditions into a new and overwhelming culture. Paulo and Teresa, the patriarch and matriarch of the dynasty remain throughout their lives more Portuguese than American. Although Paulo becomes a citizen, Teresa refuses to and never ceases to long for her island home. More tellingly, she never learns to speak English, which means that her children and grandchildren must continue to speak Portuguese, but ever more rudimentarily, until by the fourth generation the old language has been almost completely subsumed by American English, though some ancient customs, such as the festival celebrating the Feast of the Pentecost, continue to be observed.
The founders are presented with sympathy and insight; but since Paulo is very early on invalided by a stroke which leaves him partially paralyzed, it is Teresa who is more fully developed as a character as she virtually takes over the running of the farm until her husband’s death. Although she is fully aware that her second son “Paulinho” is far more capable than his elder brother “Candy,” she does not for an instant hesitate, as custom dictates, to give over the running of the dairy to the venal, incompetent and lazy elder son simply because he is the elder. The sometimes disastrous results of her choice – every twist of which the old lady observes with keen intelligence and increasing sadness — fuels the plot and leads to the animosity and jealousy of the various family members, one branch against the other, or occasionally within the nuclear family itself. When Candido leaves his overweight and dimwitted wife Odile to run off with her best friend, his own sons turn against him, leading ultimately to disastrous consequences for him. Once he loses the protection of his mother with her death, he is faced with two court cases: the dispute over his mother’s will and the divorce from his wife. Ironically, by the end of the book, it is the second son of the second son who rightfully takes over the family business and the law of primogeniture is supplanted by Darwinian pragmatism
But the plot is long and complex, the cast of characters large, and since one of the joys of reading is to meet them on one’s own terms, they are best left for the reader himself to discover. They are a lively and varied bunch and Mr. Barcellos delineates them with considerable verve, humor and intelligence. You will enjoy getting to know them.
Julian Silva is a fourth-generation Portuguese-American whose Azorean ancestors first settled in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1870s. His novel, The Gunnysack Castle, was first published by Ohio Universiy Press in 1983. The second section of the Death of Mae Ramos, “Vasco and the Other” was originally published in 1979 in Writer’s Forum 6, University of Colorado. In 2007, Distant Music Two novels: Gunnysack Castle and The Death of Mae Ramos was published by Portuguese in the Americas Series, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Distant Music is the story of the Woods (anglicized Portuguese) and Ramos families and their descendants in California. In these narratives Julian Silva “celebrates not only the resilience of men and women confronted with failure but, even more important, he exposes the compromised morality of their achievement” (Portuguese in the Americas Series). His ‘unpublished’ short fiction has appeared in blog Comunidades. Julian Silva lives in San Francisco.