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  • Cristina Herrera

Mapping Latinidades On the Mad River: Cristina Herrera Reviews Lucrecia Guerrero’s Latest Novel

On The Mad River, A Novel By Lucrecia Guerrero

When we think of the US Midwest, we may be tempted to write it off as a region devoid of Latinidad. People like Joe the Plumber, that (in?)famous “all-American” voter who became an overnight sensation during the 2008 presidential election, has undoubtedly become synonymous with the Midwestern mystique, erasing the reality of Latinx communities who have called this place home for centuries.

But reading Lucrecia Guerrero’s latest novel, On the Mad River, set in the hardscrabble former factory town of Mad River, Ohio, we’re reminded of Latinx diasporic realities that the wider public may be hard pressed to admit. After all, in regional hubs like Milwaukee or Mexican Chicago, made famous by the likes of Chicana stalwarts Ana Castillo and Sandra Cisneros, Latinxs have always lived, loved, and created art. Guerrero’s novel maps Latinas like Rosa Linda del Río, our protagonist, who populate cities like Mad River, Cleveland, or Columbus, regions that are fighting tooth and nail to maintain a white, working-class ethos amid a rapidly shifting uptick in gentrification and the undeniable growth of the Latinx population.

Lucrecia Guerrero’s latest novel, On the Mad River, set in the hardscrabble former factory town of Mad River, Ohio, we’re reminded of Latinx diasporic realities that the wider public may be hard pressed to admit.

Guerrero convincingly portrays Mad River residents who patronize hotspots like the Bottoms Up Tavern or Wilma’s Country Kitchen, those rare local businesses that have survived a crashing economy. Set in the early 1980’s, Rosa Linda’s sudden arrival to Reaganomics-era Mad River begins this text that is filled with Midwestern and Southwestern speech patterns and regional anecdotes, reflecting the writer’s adept knowledge of these two landscapes that couldn’t be more different.

What connects these two regions is Rosa Linda, who flees Nopal, Arizona, arriving willy-nilly to Mad River via Greyhound bus. Who is this young Chicana vagabond? “I might be lots of people, depending on my mood” (4), Rosa Linda tells Enon, the creepy dude who offers her a ride to Chicago when he spots her at the diner where they have both landed. While at first Enon appears to kindly offer a fellow traveler some company and a free lift to the big city, he eventually turns on Rosa Linda, and her narrow escape from his violence haunts her throughout the text. Indeed, Rosa Linda and Enon embark on a dangerous game of cat and mouse, the grittiness, fear, and dread practically jumping off the pages the deeper we dive into the text.

On the Mad River gives insight into two vastly different characters: a white, working-class man named Donnie Ray Camper who is haunted by the tragic death of his younger brother, Shayne, and Rosa Linda del Río, our young Latina protagonist who vows to never be anyone’s doormat. Guerrero describes in lyrical language the extent to which young Latinas must “fake it ‘till you make it,” perform, put on a face, in short, the myriad acts needed simply to survive. “Travel often and travel light” is Rosa Linda’s preferred philosophy (34), a perspective she’s needed to adopt after bouncing around from one family member’s couch to another.

A Chicana from Nopal would hardly appear to have anything in common with Donnie Ray, a stoic resident of Mad River’s Holler. As the narrator describes, “Jeering outsiders had dubbed the neighborhood Hillbilly Heaven, but the inhabitants tweaked the name to Hillbilly Holler, a banner of defiant pride” (11). Donnie Ray’s ties to the Holler run deep, an intimate connection to a land that birthed him but the same place that ironically took his brother’s life. Donnie Ray’s armor, “never trust any damn body” (50), filters every relationship in his life, even as he finds himself reluctantly drawn to Rosa Linda’s doe in the headlights meets determined chingona persona.

But in these contradictions, Guerrero takes up what it means to see your community change so radically in front of your very eyes. Donnie Ray and Rosa Linda’s shared education from the school of hard knocks fosters a human connection that both have been reluctant to make with anyone else. In no way does Guerrero gloss over the very real ways in which Rosa Linda is racialized within a predominantly white space like Mad River by the likes of longtime residents who eye her with suspicion; but in exploring what unites Donnie Ray and Rosa Linda, the author urges her readers to acknowledge our shared humanity and the ties that bind those communities who are thrown to the margins.

Donnie Ray and Rosa Linda’s shared education from the school of hard knocks fosters a human connection that both have been reluctant to make with anyone else.

In a novel that refuses to shy away from all sides of humanity, it equally tells the story of the human capacity for love and generosity. In Guerrero’s text, salvation comes in the form of Melva Kopp, a no-nonsense, chain-smoking viejita (it is the 1980’s, after all) who runs her own restaurant and hires the rootless Rosa Linda as live-in help. “Learn how to make and sell a product, and you won’t need to take anything off of any-damn body,” this tough-as-nails dame counsels her young charge, advice that will eventually set Rosa Linda on an independent path by the novel’s end.

Rosa Linda’s arrival to Mad River is plagued by her history of waywardness, her parents having discarded her to any relative who will take her in while her mother makes one futile attempt after another to make it in Hollywood. In being forced to parent themselves, Rosa Linda and Donnie Ray experience a particular type of loneliness, call it orphanhood, that they only articulate to each other. Donnie Ray’s grief after his brother’s violent death, which “grew inside him, roots spreading like a cancer” (137), finds a balm in Rosa Linda, who seeks help from this suffer-in-silence loner. Amid the many twists and turns that occur throughout the novel [spoiler alert: Enon doesn’t take too kindly to rejection and returns to Mad River to punish Rosa Linda], Donnie Ray and Rosa Linda come together in their shared experiences of pain, longing, and isolation.

Lucrecia Guerrero’s novel is loaded with the twin emotions of dread and anxiety, punctuated by that nagging suspicion that something bad is going to happen to Rosa Linda, even as readers are eager to see her finally land a hard-deserved win. We empathize with Rosa Linda’s temptation to steal the valuable diamonds that Melva keeps under lock and key in her living room safe, even as we warn her, “don’t do it, Rosa Linda. Don’t do it.” And this is precisely what Guerrero does so right in this text: that is, the astute way she captures the desperation that Rosa Linda must feel to even contemplate stealing from the generous couple who has let her in, or the way readers can undeniably comprehend Donnie Ray’s need for vengeance. Haven’t we ever vowed to punish those who have caused our loved ones harm? In desperate times, haven’t we eyed that wad of cash that would be so easy to snatch up beneath our friends’ noses? We can disagree with Rosa Linda’s and Donnie Ray’s actions and motivations, but we get it. This human compulsion to avenge our loved ones or to lie and steal to flee dangerous situations, is humanity, all exposed blood and guts. It ain’t pretty, but it sure as hell is human.

1 Comment

Apr 15

Sounds like a great book! Thanks for putting this on my radar!

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