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“Shaken Earth” by Martin Barillas Offers the Blood and Sinew of 1930s Guatemala

April 10th 2017

Martin Barillas

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History, in its purest form, is a collection of facts about past events. As a discipline, however, historians impose an interpretation onto selected facts in order to tell a story about the past, from a given perspective.


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Historical novels, if they’re well-written, carry the process a step further – that historical perspective is fleshed out, given blood and sinews and filled with the breath of human drama. Martin Barillas’ novel about 1930s Guatemala, with one foot in a rapidly modernizing world and the other in a romantic past of Spanish high culture and indigenous mystery, conveys familiarity. It is a place where Barillas spent much of his youth, visiting his father’s family, drinking in their stories, and walking their roads. The era about which he writes was still within their living memory and the result is a highly compelling tale that evokes the flavor of a specific time and place – one that intersects with American history, as well.


The heroine is Soledad, a fiery Latina who, in the course of Shaken Earth, is courted, marries, betrays her husband Mariano and, in the end, is (perhaps) reconciled with him. Against that framework, we are introduced to Central America’s dizzying development, glorious promise, revolutionary madness, and (possible) settlement into modernity.

Mariano, a complex character who is both a passionate, knowledgeable landowner and a gun runner in the midst of fomenting counter-revolutions, beatings, and incarcerations, is another depiction of duality. Like Guatemala of this era, he is simultaneously rooted and uprooted. He is broken by the ebb and flow of the times, to which he contributes, but finds healing in the traditions of his own people and those of the indigenous.

Into this mix comes the character of Bronwyn Morrison, an independent woman from the north who writes romantic travelogues. Through her eyes, we have a fascinating portrayal of the Fruit Company, an actual business that dominated Guatemalan history at this time. In this story, however, the Fruit Company is not the blanket bad guy of contemporary revisionist telling but an enterprise filled with people who have been captured by the entrepreneurial optimism of the moment. Like everything – and everyone – else, it’s complicated.


Another major thread running through the fabric of ‘Shaken Earth’ is the matter of religion, without which one could hardly embark on any serious exploration of 1930s Guatemala. In this case, the person of Father Ismael opens a window for us to experience the sweet piety, cultural richness, and omnipresent suffering particular to the time. Father Ismael’s high level of erudition contrasts beautifully with his humble acts of compassion and self-doubt. Ultimately, he provides the existential environment for Soledad’s soul-searching and – perhaps – reunification with Mariano. The reader is not amiss for hoping that Guatemala’s lurching labor into modernity, for all its missteps along the way, may similarly reconcile its sophisticated, global enterprises with the rich refinements of its past.


Barillas’ writing is colorful and exciting. It makes wonderful use of sights, sounds, and smells to draw the reader into the story’s milieu. On one of Mariano’s trips to the U.S., he saw that his ship was:

…taking on a couple of dissolute and manacled sailors who were led by a portly, beaming American consul. They were on their way to face a naval tribunal in the Canal Zone. Their broken knuckles, swollen faces, and bloodied shirts were the tell-tale of an on-shore spree. Stevedores loaded crates and nets full of coconuts, sacks of sugar, cowhides, and other miscellaneous cargo onboard as Mariano slowly smoked and contemplated.


It’s a wonderful slice of history that Barillas’ family would recognize.

Stephanie Block is the author of the four-volume “Change Agents: Alinskyian Organizing Among Religious Bodies”, available at Amazon, and a syndicated writer whose work appears at SperoNews.com

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