That’s right, people. This is my 100th post! I know this because WordPress told me my last post was my 99th. I’m very excited to have reached this milestone, and reviewing The Earthquake Machine is a great way to celebrate.
I’m happy to report that the state of independent publishing is alive and well, thanks to Mary Pauline Lowry. I have had the privilege of reading and reviewing quite a few indie books that were well-written and constructed, but my favorite so far is The Earthquake Machine. Filled with beautiful writing, stunning imagery, and a story you can get lost in, Lowry’s debut is a wonderful example of how to write a book. It is an unusual but powerful story of one girl’s journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance.
Rhonda is a fourteen-year-old whose home life is less than happy. Her father owns a pharmacy and is a workaholic, and brings “medicine” home to his wife to keep her subdued. Her mother, Louise May, is depressed and lethargic from the pills she is being forced to take. Rhonda’s only happy moments are spent secretly spending time in the evening with Jésus, the Mexican gardener who lives on the property. Jésus is kind and honest with Rhonda, and teaches her Spanish while he describes the life he left behind in Mexico, carving fantastical animals out of wood. Rhonda instinctively hides her knowledge of the language, as she knows her father would not approve of their friendship. But when Jésus is suddenly deported back to Mexico, Rhonda’s life starts to come unhinged.
In a terrible turn of events, Louise May loses the battle to keep her sanity and commits suicide. When school friends invite Rhonda along on a river trip on the Rio Grande, she goes along, hoping to forget about the horror of losing her mother. But an illicit encounter one night in camp with Mansk the tour guide propels Rhonda to run away. And so begins her journey. Afraid that she may be crazy like her mother, Rhonda decides to run away from the group, hike to Mexico and find Jésus. In a beautifully lyrical passage, she swims across the Rio Grande to the Mexican side, wanders naked through the desert, and finally comes to a small village where she finds help in the form of a bartender named Juan Diego. He helps her on her way by cutting off her hair, giving her clothing and procuring a donkey to ride for the rest of her journey to find Jésus. Finally, to go with her boyish disguise, Rhonda changes her name to Angel. (To avoid confusion, I will continue to call her “Rhonda” for this review.)
During the trek to locate Jésus, Rhonda runs into several groups of dangerous but colorful characters, each one acting as a catalyst that propels her forward on her journey. When she finally gets to her destination, she settles in with Jésus and his mother and learns how to paint alibrijes, the colorful wooden animals that Jésus described to Rhonda back home. She also befriends a miserable old American woman named Genevieve who plays a large part in explaining the title of the book (which I won’t give away here). But the idyllic life in Mexico is short-lived, and tragedy for Rhonda and her friends is just around the corner. Lowry brings everything full circle as Rhonda is forced to make some tough decisions about who she really wants to be.
Lowry does a wonderful job weaving metaphor and imagery throughout her story. In particular, the Rio Grande represents both the separation of Rhonda’s old life and her new one, and the crossing over from innocence to adulthood. Change is a constant theme: Rhonda changing her name to Angel and “becoming” a boy by cutting her hair are just two examples. Because Rhonda is going through puberty, Lowry skillfully describes her emotional state as she falls into adulthood. Rhonda thinks eating will give her a woman’s curves, and so she stops, because she’s not ready to grow up. Jésus’ mother finally gets her to eat by telling her “it’s food that makes you a woman, and being a woman makes you strong.”
Burgeoning sexuality plays an important part in the story, although the sexual passages in the book have been criticized by some reviewers. But in my opinion, these scenes enhance the book and are in keeping with the theme of growing up. Rhonda, who doesn’t know the word “orgasm,” refers to her sexuality as a moth, and near the end of the story when Rhonda meets up with Mansk again, he calls her a moth with “…a darker beauty than butterfly beauty.” One of the funnier scenes takes place when Rhonda introduces the old woman Genevieve to “the earthquake machine,” and you’re just going to have to read the book if you want to know what I’m talking about. And yes, it has to do with sex.
Lowry’s writing is spare and clean and she has mastered implied information; she doesn’t tell you more than you need to know. There are beautiful sentences throughout like this one, after Rhonda and her friends sneak out to buy coffee and pan dulce: “Surely the men would be able to see coffee and sugar racing through their veins.”
In dreamy prose, The Earthquake Machine takes us on Rhonda’s adventure from innocence to maturity and back again. Lowry has a knack for storytelling, which is evident by how lost in the story I found myself. Rhonda’s journey is an unusual one, but her emotions represent those of every adolescent girl. I was entranced from beginning to end, and I hope The Earthquake Machine reaches a wide audience. If Lowry doesn’t have an agent for her next book, I’m guessing she soon will.
Many thanks to the author for providing a review copy.