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Our Lives are the Rivers    by Jaime Manrique order for
Our Lives are the Rivers
by Jaime Manrique
Order:  USA  Can
Rayo, 2006 (2006)
* *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Historical novels are an important aspect of literary writings. Not only does the genre provide entertaining reading, but it also introduces readers to personages, places, and events from past centuries that otherwise get little light. I hadn't thought about Simón Bolívar since college history courses, and did not know of the courage and conviction of Seńora Manuela Sáenz Thorne, deserving of recognition for her valor, fight for freedom, and love for General Bolivar.

Jaime Manrique pens lyrical prose, based on the life of Manuela Sáenz, who had a passion for her adopted country's causes and a fire of love for South American liberator, Simón Bolivar. The story is written in the first-person, from the perspective of three courageous women - Manuela and her two devoted slaves Natán and Jonotás. From a young age, Natán and Jonotás became Manuela's lifetime companions, each having her own story. As a conspirator in Lima, Manuela Sáenz raised funds to finance the patriot armies. The three women went into battle dressed as men to thwart an ambush on Simón Bolívar and his troops. Manuela was honored with the title of 'la Coronela' - 'the liberator of the Liberator', and was awarded medals.

Manuela's mother died of consumption, leaving her illegitimate daughter to be treated as an outcast by family and community, and mistreated in a convent school. Mother Superior said, 'Children like you, Manuela Sáenz, born of unholy unions, are not worthy of serving the Mother of God. The Virgin only accepts girls who are innocent. You're lucky that we took you in.' (It is easy to understand Manuela's distaste and loathing for the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church.) One friend in the convent school remained faithful to Manuela throughout her life. Rosita Campusano, also illegitimate, introduced Manuela to the rebellion against Spanish rule.

Manuela didn't know who her father was, until he visited her at the convent on her fifteenth birthday. Senor Sáenz was a Spanish official, married with three children. He brought her into the fold of his existing home life, though she resisted at first. Though her stepmother and stepsisters remained aloof, stepbrother Jose Maria befriended his newfound stepsister, and with Manuela's encouragement, left the Spanish army to join the rebellion. Her first love was Lt. Fausto D'Elhuyar of the Royal Army. The dashing soldier convinced Manuela to elope, leading to a short-lived marriage of one month. Her father provided a dowry for an arranged marriage to wealthy Englishman Joseph Thorne, who owned a shipping fleet. Manuela had little choice but to submit.

Manuela's affection for Thorne never blossomed into love. While still married to him, Manuela was shunned when she became Bolivar's mistress, a relationship which lasted eight years through many separations. General Simón Bolívar sought the creation of the Republic of Gran Colombia. He was eventually crowned at the palace in Bogota as Manuela watched from afar (a queen without a crown). During their relationship, Manuela saved Bolivar from assassination on more than one occasion. When his tuberculosis worsened, and with increasing threats to his safety, Bolivar eventually set off for Italy where Manuela hoped to join him, but that reunion was not destined to take place. Natán married and had two children, while Jonotás and Manuela spent their last years in poverty in Paita.

The novel is set against the majestic Andes mountains. Manrique's vivid descriptions of South American landscapes, customs, and political environment are superbly woven into the novel's historical base - including issues of women's rights, slavery, and indigenous groups. Manrique's rich use of language is exemplified in: 'Tomorrow ... I would awake and start the voyage down the river ... where Bolivar had died and was buried. Lines by the Spanish poet Jorge Manrique came to mind: 'Our lives are the rivers that flow into the sea of Death'.'

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