Guernica – Book Review

From medieval times, Guernica was a crossroads of the old Roman Way and the Fish and Wine Route that wound through the hills inland from the sea. Intersecting them both was the pilgrims’ route to Santiago de Compostela. For centuries, representatives of the region met under the Guernica oak to shape laws that outlawed torture and unwarranted arrest and granted unprecedented privileges to women. Although aligned with the kingdom of Castile, they maintained their own legal system and demanded that the series of Castilian monarchs from the time of Ferdinand and Isabella come stand, in person, beneath the oak of Guernica and swear to protect the Basque laws. -From Guernica, pages 13-14-

On July 17, 1936, the Spanish Civil War broke out in Morrocco. The country was quickly divided between the Republicans (or Loyalists) and the Nationalists under the leadership of General Francisco Franco (and backed by Mussolini’s Italy and Nazi Germany). Caught in the middle was the Basque Government – an autonomous authority which sought to defend the Basque region (Biscay) with its own army. The historic town of Guernica represented a strategic point for the Republicans as it stood between Franco and the capture of Bilboa in the north of Spain. On April 26, 1937 Nationalist forces, along with German and Italian aircraft bombed Guernica – dumping nearly 40 tons of bombs on a town with approximately 5000 people and exacting a high casualty rate of between 250 – 1600 citizens (estimates vary greatly). The attack so inspired the famed painter Pablo Picasso that he began painting his now famous mural of Guernica only 15 days after the attack.

Rebels slaughtered countrymen and threatened masterpieces. This moved Picasso as both an artist and a Spaniard, and it made him susceptible to an invitation that soon arrived. He was asked to provide art for the Spanish Pavilion at the World’s Fair to open in Paris the following summer. -From Guernica, page 167-

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Dave Boling’s debut novel Guernica is a family saga and love story which wraps itself around this historic event. The novel begins in 1893 with brothers Justo, Josepe and Xabier Ansotegui growing up together on a sheep farm in Guernica. When their mother dies shortly after giving birth to Xabier, and their father emotionally abandons them (before simply disappearing one day), the boys are left to raise themselves. Justo – the eldest brother – takes over the farm. A strong man with an even stronger ego, he thrives in his role as patriarch. Josepe eventually becomes a fisherman on the coast of Spain, while Xabier finds his empathetic talents fit perfectly in the priesthood. Later Justo marries a local Basque girl which results in the birth of a daughter – Miren.

Miguel Navarro, a young man who flees from his fishing village to avoid arrest by the Spanish Civil Guard, finds himself in Guernica one day in 1935 head over heels in love with the dark haired Miren – a girl who has become the joy of her village with her laughter and ability to dance like no other. The reader also meets Alaia, a blind girl whom Miren befriends.

Guernica is an epic story which spans a period of nearly 50 years, and so the reader is allowed to watch the characters grow from youth into adulthood. Throughout the novel, Boling connects his characters through the tendrils of history and place, and crafts their relationships as would an artist – with care and attention to detail.

Boling’s ability to show place and immerse the reader in the rolling hills and gorgeous farmland of the Basque countryside is only one of the joys of this book. When little Miren delights in watching the baby donkeys play, the reader cannot help but smile.

When weeks old, they would nurse in the paddocks and suddenly, as if jolted by unseen lightning, let loose with their little honk-and-whistle bray and dash in tumbling circles around their mothers. With imaginations faster than their legs, they splayed and rolled and reared and kicked, falling flat and rising without shame to race in circles again, perhaps recalling a connection to distant ancestors that branched off to become Arabian stallions. And following a lap or two of frivolity, they suddenly would stop and return to their mothers’ milk, fueling for the next imaginary race upon the sands of some great forgotten dunes. -from Guernica, page 37-

Boling slowly builds his novel to its crescendo – the air attack on Guernica – and does not spare his reader the horror of war. Tender and tragic, Guernica is a novel which reveals history through its impact on the people who lived it.

I was completely absorbed by this brilliantly written story of a vibrant people caught in the middle of war. Highly recommended.

**Win a Advance Readers Editon of Guernica on my blog here. Contest ends September 19th.

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    • Jill on September 15, 2008 at 16:49

    This is a must-read for my TBR pile (mountain). Great review!

    • Laura on September 15, 2008 at 16:56

    I know very little about Spanish history, and this sounds like an enthralling read!

    • Wendy on September 15, 2008 at 17:57

    Thanks, Jill – you’ll love this one!

    Laura: It is really wonderful – I learned so much about the Civil War there…one of the reasons historical fiction is some of my favorite.

    • Trish on September 15, 2008 at 19:37

    Silly me–I forgot about the Picasso painting. No wonder the title sounded familiar! This sounds absolutely fantastic! Thanks for the review, Wendy.

    • Jena on September 15, 2008 at 23:31

    for all of you who are interested in this book, I’d recommend getting yourself a little background knowledge of the period and geography. I got a little lost because I knew nothing about it, and as a result, didn’t enjoy the book all that much.

    • Wendy on September 16, 2008 at 12:16

    Trish: It is a great book…glad I can tempt you 🙂

    Jena: *nods* There is a lot of reference to history in this book…although I found I was able to follow things pretty well in the novel without a lot of background information. Sorry you didn’t enjoy the book as much as I did.

    • Dawn on October 9, 2008 at 08:35

    Yes, Wendy, this was a great book! I love the combination of fiction and history.

    (I’ve edited your link on my review, to point back here)

    • Wendy on October 10, 2008 at 12:44

    Dawn, thanks for fixing that link!

    • Annk on August 8, 2009 at 00:06

    Found this book most interesting , though a little ‘bitty’ latterly. Did not need the background historical info, though I printed the Picasso painting out and that did help the reading. Glad to have had Waterstones offer it to me at £3. something as an introduction. Annk

    • Wendy on August 10, 2009 at 07:06

    Annk: What is “little bitty latterly?” *laughs* Glad you found the book interesting.

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