Queen of Water is without a doubt, one of the best young adult novels I've read so far this year. This novel, a collaborative effort by author Laura Resau tells the amazing story of her co-author, Maria Virginia Farinango. Farinango is a young woman from Ecuador, who grew up in the 1980's under very trying circumstances. An indigenas - a descendant of the Incas who began life in a small impoverished Quichua village in the Ecuadorian Andes, it was Virginia's "vivisima" (cleverness) that led her to break free of the discrimination and abuse she experienced to realize her full potential.
"It's true, I do use my wits to fill my belly with fresh cheese or warm rolls. Or to get something I really want, like a pet goat or a pair of shoes. But there's more. I have dreams. Dreams bigger than the mountaintops that poke at the clouds. In the pasture, I always climb my favorite tree and shout to the sheep, "I'm traveling far from here!" and my tree turns into a truck and I ride off to a place where I can eat rice and meat and watermelon every day."
We meet Virginia when she is only 7 years old living in the village of Yana Urku. Despite her youth and her poverty, Virginia has a great desire to escape her poverty, to get educated and have her own life. However, her family's grinding poverty and indigenas status will be major obstacles to overcome. In Ecuadoran society there are two classes of people; the indigenas who are the native people descended from the Inca's and the mestizos who are the Spanish Europeans who conquerored much of South America including Ecuador. The mestizos are the doctors, lawyers, teachers and landowners in Ecuador while the indigenas are usually slaves, farmers and those who serve the mestizos. It is therefore not uncommon for the mestizos to look down upon the indigenas who are poor and uneducated and to openly ridicule and discriminate against them.
Virginia is given away by her parents to a mestizo couple, Carlitos and his wife Romelia. Virginia is told she must call Romelia, "Doctorita" because she is a dentist and a teacher and that she must address Carlitos as Nino Carlitos, Nino being a term indigenas call their mestizo bosses. They take her back to their village of Kunu Yaku. The understanding Virginia has is that she will be paid a thousand sucres monthly and be allowed to return home to visit her family once per month. Of course, this does not happen and it takes Virginia only a short while to realize that she is in fact nothing more than a slave and that her mother will not be coming to get her.
Virginia, a mere child herself is forced to cook, clean and also to care for the Doctorita's young son, Jaimito who is a baby. Whenever Virginia does not satisfy Doctorita, she is beaten, sometimes so severely that her nose bleeds and she is covered in cuts and bruises. It is truly heartbreaking to read about the abuse that Virginia suffers at the hands of the manipulative, vengeful Doctorita.
At first she is never allowed outside except to wash dishes and diapers but eventually Virginia earns the trust of the Doctorita and is allowed to go on errands. Virginia gradually comes to realize that she will never be paid nor will she ever be allowed to return home. She tells herself that someday she will leave but that she is too small to undertake such a long journey home. At first she silently defies her masters but gradually her resistence becomes more open. When she does try to resist and whenever she tells the Doctorita that she wants to go to school and college and to have a career she is told that she is a longa and that she doesn't "need to read to clean and cook".
So Virginia begins to plan her escape but as time goes on it becomes more and more difficult for her to leave. Besides physically abusing her, the Doctorita emotionally manipulates Virginia by telling her that if she does try to escape, her parents will only sell her again to another family.
Virginia tries to make the best out of her situation. The Doctorita teaches children science at the local colegio. When the Doctorita refuses to send Virginia to school, she decides that she will learn to read. She begs Nino Carlitos to teach her to read and eventually he does. It is this step that empowers Virginia on the path to acquiring the learning she so desperately craves. But it is Virginia's love of the television character MacGyver that inspires her to become a secret-agent student. She begins by reading one of the Doctorita's textbooks, Understanding Our Universe. Taking notes in a book which she hides under the refrigerator, Virginia gradually learns all the material in the textbook. She also secretly completes all the assignments the Doctorita gives to her eighth grade students, even taking the exam and checking the answers.
As Virginia enters into her teens, the situation at Nino and the Doctorita's home becomes increasingly abusive and strained. It is at this point that Virginia finally makes the decision to reconnect with her older sister Matilde who through extraordinary circumstances she was able to reconnect with. It is Matilde who becomes the catalyst for Virginia to make other life-changing decisions, including the most important one to break free of Nino Carlitos and Doctorita.
The Queen of Water is a book really about the personal triumph of one amazing young woman who refused to accept that because of her race she somehow deserved less. Virginia overcomes so many seemingly impossible obstacles, through ingenuity, perseverance, hard work and even a little bit of luck. Even her decision to finally break free of the Doctorita is a huge struggle. To those on the outside looking in, the choice seems obvious but it's apparent that for Virginia it took great courage to take the steps she finally did. Her choice was between living in a wealthy home with many physical comforts but where she was abused and her real home where she was uncertain of her place, her parents love for her and would once again experience poverty.
When Virginia returns to her family she finds it difficult to fit in. She is neither completely indigenas anymore but nor is she metiszo either. She finds herself conflicted, often straddling two worlds and sometimes ashamed of her indigenos heritage. Virginia must come to terms with the hurt of her parents giving her away and reconcile with her parents. She eventually learns about what her parents lives were like when she was very young and how this led to the abuse she experienced in her own family.
Queen of Water is a sad, riveting account but worth the read to share in Virginia's eventual triumph. She is a true modern heroine and her story has a great message for young people and those who find themselves in circumstances that a difficult and overwhelming. There is the obvious theme of identity which threads its way thoughout the novel.
If you'd like to read more about Virginia and learn how she is doing now you can read this interview with her on Laura Resau's website. This link on Laura Resau's website will also explain which parts of the book are fictionalized. Queen of Water does follow Virginia's life very closely but certain names were changed to protect the privacy of villagers.
Queen of Water by Laura Resau and Maria Virginia Farinango
New York: Delacorte Press 2011