The Mourning of Angels

by Patricia S. Taylor Edmisten (Peru 1962–64)
Xlibris, $19.54
309 pages
October, 2001

Reviewed by Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 1963-65)

    I READ PATRICIA EDMISTEN’S DRAMATIC and sensuous debut novel, The Mourning of Angels, in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Her marvelous evocation of the first days of the Peace Corps provided an escape from the sadness of New York City, where I live, as well as a much-needed perspective on the savagery of that act.
         The Mourning of Angels captures the innocence of 1962 and 1963, before the Kennedy assassination, when many of us, swept up in the idealism of such a venture, joined the Peace Corps and journeyed to countries we’d never heard of, and when young women seized the opportunity for a kind of adventure that until then had almost solely been the purview of men. Lydia Schaefer, Edmisten’s 23-year-old protagonist from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, could well have been a travel companion to the five Peace Corps women who, in Geraldine Kennedy’s Harmattan, crossed the Sahara Desert in the early 60s. Instead Lydia’s assignment is Peru. She is a tough, principled, sometimes provocative, but always emotionally receptive young woman, determined to do her job as a health care worker, first in Arequipa, and later in the coastal town of Ica.

         In straight forward, beautifully descriptive prose, subtly impregnated with the political and cultural history of Peru, Edmisten charts Lydia Schaefer’s journey from innocence — she is a Catholic girl, still a virgin, the product of a protective, loving home — to a stark, tragic maturity. Lydia describes her view beyond her barriada in Arequipa.

    Gray and white dominate the landscape. No road is paved. There are no trees. Nothing green. No spring flowers interfere with the dreariness. Looking up, however, there is visual relief. Misti, a 19,150 foot volcano, said to be dormant by experts, but alive to those who know her tremors, rises proudly over The City of my Hope. Snow lavishly bleeds down her sides, like the white mantle of the Madonna.

     As this image of the Virgin’s cloak implies, Lydia struggles with her strong Catholic beliefs in the face of rampant infant mortality, the yearly pregnancies of poor women, local priests who sire children and the church’s refusal to allow birth control. Interestingly, she never gives up her Catholicism, but rather gradually adapts the religion to her new knowledge and beliefs, much as Indians force the Catholic Church to incorporate native rituals into the liturgy. And, she breaks her own rule to remain a virgin until marriage. With a sensuality that is both innocent and literally rapturous, Edmisten writes of Lydia making love with her in-country co-worker, Rafael, a mestizo with a Spanish father and Indian mother. They are journeying back to his village beyond Machu Picchu, when they stop to swim in a mountain pool and then make love.

    Rafael’s kiss is moist and sweet, and as he eases on top of me, it becomes more familiar, more urgent. The air is fresh and fragrant, a light breeze glances off our warm bodies. I look up at blinding white clouds and reach my arms out to them. We remain immobile for a few minutes and then slowly rock. A condor soars overhead. I have read of eagles mating in mid-air, free falling, unaware of the doom below. It was like that.

The doom she senses in her moment of sexual abandon foretells of political clashes and violence that will irrevocably change her life and radicalize her world view.

Masterful portrayal
Edmisten is masterful in portraying the customs, politics, food, suffering, playful activities and collective nature of life for the Indians of that region. She elegantly weaves in strands of history and political theory. Though generous of spirit throughout, by the end of her painful story, Edmisten has shown how the Church, the United States in its fight against communism during that period, the cultural innocence of Americans, and the abusive powers within the country are all at least morally complicit in the continuance of devastating poverty, the subjugation of women, and the oppression of Indians.
     My only caveat in my otherwise enthusiastic response to Edmisten’s novel, is that once Lydia and Rafael arrive at his isolated village of Pachabuena, the narrative shifts to an almost allegorical tone.
     Reading The Mourning of Angels in a time of national mourning viscerally reminded me that other cultures and nations have suffered atrocities for centuries, that if we’re to be honest with ourselves, we as a country and a people must admit to some responsibility in the global ratcheting up of violence.
     Edmisten also shows the wonderful gutsiness and tenacity of those early Peace Corps Volunteers who plunged gamely into uncharted waters. Some swam, some sank, but all learned of other worlds and experienced hardships they never would have had a glimmer of if they had not served. This is what Edmisten and her appealing Lydia Schaefer remind us of. Edmisten has written an admirable book and one that superbly fulfills the third goal of the Peace Corps, “to bring the world home.”

Marnie Mueller is the author of Green Fires, The Climate of the Country and forthcoming, My Mother’s Island. She lives in New York City.