ARC Review: ALL THE CROOKED SAINTS by Maggie Stiefvater

12:48:00 PM

All The Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater
Rating: 3/5 stars
Genre: Magical Realism, Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Publication Date: October 10, 2017 by Scholastic Press

I received this advanced reader's copy from a good friend for the purpose of giving it an OwnVoices review, using my perspective as a Latin-American to form my own opinions on the content. The following review is entirely my own, spoiler-free, and completely honest.

Summary (from Goodreads): Here is a thing everyone wants: 
A miracle.

Here is a thing everyone fears:
What it takes to get one.

Any visitor to Bicho Raro, Colorado is likely to find a landscape of dark saints, forbidden love, scientific dreams, miracle-mad owls, estranged affections, one or two orphans, and a sky full of watchful desert stars.

At the heart of this place you will find the Soria family, who all have the ability to perform unusual miracles. And at the heart of this family are three cousins longing to change its future: Beatriz, the girl without feelings, who wants only to be free to examine her thoughts; Daniel, the Saint of Bicho Raro, who performs miracles for everyone but himself; and Joaquin, who spends his nights running a renegade radio station under the name Diablo Diablo.

They are all looking for a miracle. But the miracles of Bicho Raro are never quite what you expect.

Maggie Stiefvater has been called “a master storyteller” by USA Today and “wildly imaginative” by Entertainment Weekly. Now, with All the Crooked Saints, she gives us the extraordinary story of an extraordinary family, a masterful tale of love, fear, darkness, and redemption.

All The Crooked Saints is a story rooted in wondrous and mystical folklore, belonging to the peoples of many a Hispanic culture. In a fictional town called Bicho Raro (literally, “rare bug” but often used to call someone a weirdo) somewhere in Colorado, the Soria family are a unique bunch who immigrated years ago from Mexico to share the wealth of their unusual abilities: each generation of Sorias has a Saint, who in turn has the ability to perform miracles. People come from far and wide after hearing whispers of these miracles, but the funny thing about miracles is the mysterious (and often convoluted) manner in which they manifest. A Soria’s work is only half the miracle, for once the task has been performed and the recipient receives the miracle, it is up to them to see it through to completion. And perhaps the biggest catch of all, once a miracle has been performed, a Soria must have no involvement in the recipient’s redemption; otherwise they risk great pains, among the likes of which include death. It should come as no surprise, then, that the little town of Bicho Raro is home to the Soria ranch, and among them, the pilgrims that come in search of miracles.
Daniel Soria is the Saint of Bicho Raro, and of his cousins, he is the most apt at performing miracles. His character is good and true, and he is every bit the bleeding heart romantic one might expect. Joaquin is the Soria cousin with perhaps the biggest dreams and shortest hindsight; with his cousins’ help, he runs a pirate radio station out of the back of an old box truck they fixed up for the sole purpose of broadcasting Diablo Diablo’s show across the wide and ranging Colorado desert.
The remaining Soria cousin is Beatriz. She seemingly lives on her own plain of existence, her scientific mind always whirring and ticking in patterns and currents that revolve around her family and life. Beatriz sometimes thinks in whistles and clicks in her own made-up language, shared with her only by her father. Her mind is always calculating, always analyzing, and everything she does is practical, concise, and has purpose. But it is because of this that the inhabitants of her family’s small ranch in Bicho Raro have come to know her as la ella sin sentimiento.
Miracles come in to Bicho Raro, and rarely do they ever come out. The most challenging part of a miracle is its completion, a task that is up to the recipient alone to perform. Because of this, pilgrims remain at the ranch in various states of miracle completion. A priest with the head of a coyote. A schoolteacher who cannot speak, except to repeat whatever she last heard. A sorrowful woman whose tears manifest as a raincloud that follows her every move, wearing a wedding dress covered in monarch butterflies. The village of misguided pilgrims remain at Bicho Raro, frozen in various stages of their miracles’ completion. It seems like any other pilgrim had come to the ranch seeking a miracle, but this traveler in particular, and the hitchhiker he picked up along the way, just might set in motion a series of events that change Bicho Raro and its residents for the better part of forever.
The writing in this book is unparalleled, in my opinion, compared to Maggie’s other work. It is lyrical, grandly detailed, aesthetically pleasing, and overall reads in such a poetic manner, it’s worth it to read this book for the writing alone, it’s that beautiful. The overall story, though, the characters, plot, and story arc all fall to the wayside. The world is very one-dimensional, as are the characters. The mythology and world building is intense and richly fleshed out, but I’ll touch on this more later.
Let’s get to the part I’m sure everyone is most curious about: how well did a white American author write a magical realism story about Mexican-Americans involving a cast of POC characters and a folklore, culture, and religion that are not her own? Well, to be quite frank, I believe she actually did a decent job.
Hear me out. (Just a reminder, I’m a Puerto Rican-American girl who holds Latinx culture very near and dear to my heart; however, I’m by no means an expert on the mythology and folklore of the Mexican culture that is prevalent in this book, although I do love to learn about it. This portion of the review is simply my perspective as a Latinx person on the matter of a non-Latinx person writing a story centered around Latinx culture and folklore.) (How many times have I said/will I say Latinx in this review? Who knows. Drinking game idea, take a shot every time you see the word Latinx.) (Please don’t actually do that, it’s a terrible idea and an even worse joke.)
While this is certainly not a shining example of Latinx culture, or for that matter, Southwestern Latin-American culture, it isn’t as if Maggie blatantly used derogatory terms or typecast her characters. Maggie very evidently did her research and incorporated Mexican and Southwestern American folklore into the story in a beautiful and haunting way. The concept of Saints in the story seem to be rooted in Mexican folk saints, consisting of patron saints who were actual people at one point in time, sanctified by their martyring or good deeds. This seems to align with the ideas of the Sorias producing one Saint each generation who holds the ability to perform miracles. Owls are prevalent in the story, appearing every time a miracle is imminent. In Mexican folklore, owls are symbols of the patron saint of Death – Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte (Our Lady of Holy Death) – as well as being the messengers and companions of the gods of death in Mayan and Aztec myth. There also exists a folk tale, the legend of the Lechuza, wherein a woman sells her soul to the devil and becomes a screech owl at night. Monarch butterflies and coyotes, among other prevalent images in the book, are also large components of Mexican folklore and superstition.
However despite all this, my main critique of this book is how it just has this overall feeling of otherness. I felt alienated from the story, from the characters, hell, from the culture – and I am a Latina-American myself. It’s one thing to read a book about Latinx culture, written by an author of Hispanic descent, and see yourself represented well and true. That unfortunately wasn’t the case here – it seemed very evident that it was written by an outside perspective. I felt so far removed from these characters that I couldn’t form attachments to them or the story, I didn’t find myself really connecting.
What’s more is the undercurrent of stereotyping. Beatriz is nicknamed “la ella sin sentimientos” which directly translates to “the girl without sentiments” or “emotions”. Though it may not seem prevalent, a humongous stereotype of Latinx women is their loud personality and overall lack of emotion or attachment; often accompanied with an overarching tone of anger or bitterness. We are seen as being cold and uncaring, emotionally detached, because of the precedent that has been set where Latin women hide their true feelings for fear of being seen as “crazy” or aggressive when they express their true emotion. This phenomenon can be seen across media outlets, television, and film alike. Studies on the topic have been performed across the United States, interviewing women of color of various income levels, professions, and backgrounds. Television and news media can play a big role in the perpetuation of this stereotype, too, and only results in the normalization of using Latinx qualities, cultures, backgrounds, and histories as the poorly timed butt of a joke not everyone seems to be in on.
Whether it’s being used as a punchline or simply typecasting characters in cookie cutter roles, Latinx culture; or any other culture, for that matter, should never have to experience that. It’s dehumanizing, it’s degrading, and whether it is intentional or not is irrelevant – its existence alone only serves to perpetuate the use of stereotypes to keep other cultures in submissive positions.
I also noticed a slight undercurrent of white savior syndrome, wherein the girl without emotions has her heartstrings tugged at; but that involves spoilers, so I will leave it at that. Honestly, it could just be coincidence it was written that way, or simply just subconscious conditioning to write characters in this manner, but either way it grinded my gears a little bit. It felt so unnecessary, it contributed little to nothing to the plot, and overall it was a little bit uncomfortable to witness a purportedly emotionless girl try to figure out what these feelings toward a stranger all meant.
Overall, was it a good book? I think so. It was incredibly well-written, had Maggie’s signature air of whimsy and unique sense of mythology, and it told an intriguing story. The downsides were the small misrepresentations and the fact that I couldn’t really connect to the characters themselves or sense any motivations in their journeys. From a cultural perspective, it seemed very evident to me that it was written by someone who had little experience with this culture beyond a few vacations and some trips to the library for extensive research of folklore and myths.
It's for these reasons I gave it the rating of 3 stars. Honestly, the writing alone gives it 5 stars because I enjoyed the writing of it so much. But the content itself was a bit lackluster and the most obvious trait was that it was written by someone on the outside of a culture looking in. That knocked down the rating to the average 3 stars. I struggled to find a way to rate this for a while, before realizing I just had to separate the art itself from the artist -- the art being the writing, the artist being a white woman writing POC stories. While it wasn't anywhere near being racist or awfully biased, the stereotyping and lack of knowledge of the people within the culture was still there, and resulted in a dry story arc with flat characters, embellished with beautiful writing and a story told in the details. These two contrasting ideals landed it the 3-star rating, smack in the middle.

So what's the verdict? Are you looking forward to ALL THE CROOKED SAINTS? Do you have input on the issue of representation in this book? I'd love to hear what you have to say!! Keep an eye out, I have a playlist in the works for this story too!

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Giselle has read 5 books toward her goal of 50 books.