The old adage, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach” does not at all apply to Jack Remick. Before I read Gabriela and the Widow, Jack taught me about writing with the insightful questions he’d ask after we read our work aloud during the long-standing writing group at Louisa’s Café in Seattle. Reading Gabriela was even more of an education in the subtleties of craft.
Driven from her village in Mexico by a civil war that kills her family, young Gabriela faces many hardships. Remick uses details like a “cotton blouse embroidered by hand in the faint light of the evening fire” to convey tender allusions to what Gabriela’s life must have been like before the war. When La Patrona, a woman who has “rescued” Gabriela, then takes this blouse and says she will burn it, the reader has a deeper understanding of how fully the woman is stripping away the essence of Gabriela.
When Gabriela craves a pair of white Nikes, it is easy to see that what she is really craving is a life like the Norteñas who wear these shoes. Later, Gabriela will be coaxed into other shoes, but even then the Nikes serve as a grounding point to indicate how much Gabriela is changing.
Terrible things happened to Gabriela when the war came to her village. Remick could have detailed them and we’d be struck by the horror without ever really getting inside Gabriela’s experience. Instead, Remick creates a correlation in Gabriela’s mind between toads and the horrible events—events that she refuses to quite remember. The reader sees her visceral reaction over and over anytime toads cross her path and in this way learns to empathize with her.
For a taste of the richness of the toad detail and what it was like for Gabriela to leave her village, check out this video:
Remick builds on Gabriela’s reaction to toads throughout the story. What makes this relationship for me is when Gabriela begins remembering times of innocence that involved toads as well. The glimpse at what life was like before is heartbreaking and the tension between the dark and light memories makes both exponentially more touching.
Gabriela finds safety in the North where she takes care of an ailing widow whose memory is failing. Gabriela helps her work on a list of objects and photographs and what they meant in the woman’s life. In return, La Viuda teaches Gabriela about what it means to be a woman. Though La Viuda has a somewhat colored view of the experience of womanhood, she doesn’t let her life turn her into a Miss Havisham. Instead, La Viuda intersperses myths and stories of great women with her own stories. Through tales about everyone from Helen of Troy to Xipe Totec, she helps Gabriela create an identity based on strength and womanhood as she transfers her life force to the young girl.
There are hundreds of things I could say about the reasons I loved this book—like the way Gabriela and La Viuda seamlessly slip from English to Spanish and back in their conversations, the magical realism (especially in relation to mirrors), or how in answer to La Viuda’s aging forgetfulness, Remick creates a shifting repetition that grounds the reader and also builds the narrative. What you need to know is the elegant craft reveals just the right amount of information to engage you, the reader, in telling the story.
Jack Remick can teach and he can sure as hell write. Read Gabriela and the Widow and find the things that speak to your writing. You’ll fall in love with the story and you’ll be a better writer for it. Although my work schedule doesn’t allow for weekday afternoons at Louisa’s anymore, I am grateful I can pick up Gabriela and learn from her and from Jack any old time.
If this review made you want to read the book, pick up a copy of Gabriela and the Widow from Powell’s Books. Your purchase keeps indie booksellers in business and I receive a commission.