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Sunday, January 21st, 2007
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Ines of My Soul: A Novel

by Isabel Allende

Chile con Mujeres

A review by Zee Edgell

Many readers will remember Isabel Allende's bestselling The House of Spirits, her 1982 debut novel about a 20th-century family living in the unnamed country that represented her native Chile. In her latest work of historical fiction, Allende reaches back to the 16th century to recount the adventures of the real-life Ins Suarez, one of the few Spanish women who participated in Spain's conquest of the New World and who is considered by some the founding mother of Chile.

Doa Ins lies ill in her luxurious home in Santiago de la Nueva Extremadura of the Kingdom of Chile, looking back on the 70-some years of her life. Born in Spain in humble circumstances, she was working as a seamstress to support herself and an unreliable husband when he ran off to South America in search of gold. Childless and unwilling to live as a "widow of the Americas," she followed him to Peru in 1538 only to learn that he was dead. Suarez soon became the mistress of the conquistador Pedro de Valdivia and accompanied him to Chile, the sole Spanish female in an army of 110 soldiers.

Not much has been written about the women who helped establish the former Spanish Empire. Allende, who spent four years researching Suarez's life and times, shows us a modest Spanish wife who fends off lustful, drunken sailors on the ship to Peru; a conqueror's companion who nurses injured soldiers and helps with the building of hospitals and churches in newly established towns; a conquistadora who dons breeches and armor to charge into battle; and a passionate 40-year-old woman who, having been rejected by de Valdivia, marries a handsome young officer and helps him govern Santiago, the growing city she had helped to create.

The description of any conquest can make for painful reading. For the Spaniards, who explored the Americas during an especially brutal era and who were largely motivated by greed, subduing the continent's indigenous people would include massacre, plunder, rape and other atrocities. Though she writes from the Spaniards' point of view, Allende attempts a balanced description of the violent clashes between the conquistadores and Chile's fearless Mapuche Indians. As she said in a recent National Public Radio interview about the book, "I had to take both sides. I come from both cultures, so I can understand both, and I feel entitled to speak for both."

But it's Suarez who is the heart of this book. In the early chapters, we see her as an ordinary woman taking advantage of extraordinary events to change her economic and social status. Later we understand: She would have been an extraordinary woman in any age.

Zee Edgell is an associate professor of English at Kent State University in Ohio. Her just-released fourth novel is Time and the River.

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