Excerpt from Zorro by Isabel Allende, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Zorro

A Novel

By Isabel Allende

Zorro
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  • Hardcover: May 2005,
    390 pages.
    Paperback: May 2006,
    416 pages.

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"Well, then, we will give them a demonstration of the power of cross and gunpowder." The captain laughed, and laid out his plan.

The mission defenders gathered in the church, where they barricaded the doors with sacks of sand and stationed nests containing firearms at strategic points. It was Captain de la Vega's opinion that as long as they kept the attackers at a distance, so they could reload the carbines and muskets, the scales would be tipped in their favor, but in hand-to-hand fighting they would be at a tremendous disadvantage since the Indians far surpassed them in numbers and ferocity.

Padre Mendoza had nothing but admiration for this captain's boldness. De la Vega was about thirty and already a veteran soldier, seasoned in the Italian wars, from which he bore proud scars. He was the third son of a family of hidalgos whose lineage could be traced back to El Cid. His ancestors had fought the Moors beneath the Catholic standards of Isabel and Ferdinand; for all the high praise of their courage, however, and all the blood shed for Spain, they received no fortune, only honor. Upon the death of their father, Alejandro's eldest brother inherited the family home, a hundred-year-old stone building towering over a piece of arid land in Castille. The church claimed the second brother, and so it fell to de la Vega to be a soldier; there was no other destiny for a young man of his breeding. In payment for bravery exhibited in Italy, he was given a pouchful of gold doubloons and authorization to go to the New World to better his fortunes. That was how he ended up in Alta California, to which he traveled in the company of Doña Eulalia de Callís, the wife of the governor, Pedro Fages, known as The Bear because of his bad temper and the number of those beasts brought down by his own hand. Padre Mendoza had heard the gossip about the epic voyage of Doña Eulalia, a lady with a temperament as fiery as that of her husband. Her caravan took six months to cover the distance between Mexico City, where she lived like a princess, and Monterey, the inhospitable military fortress where her husband awaited. It traveled at a turtle's pace, dragging along a train of oxcarts and an endless line of mules laden with luggage. Every place the party stopped, they organized a courtly diversion that tended to last several days. It was said that the governor's wife was an eccentric, that she bathed her body in jenny's milk and colored her hair—which fell to her heels—with the red salves of Venetian courtesans, and that from pure excess, not Christian virtue, she gave away her silk and brocade gowns to cover the naked Indians she came across along the road. And last, most scandalous of all, were tales of how she had clung to the handsome Captain Alejandro de la Vega. "But who am I, a poor Franciscan, to judge this lady?"

Padre Mendoza mused, glancing out of the corner of his eye at de la Vega and wondering, with irrepressible curiosity, how much truth there was in the rumors.

In their letters to the director of missions in Mexico, the friars complained, "The Indians prefer to live unclothed, in straw huts, armed with bow and arrow, with no education, government, religion, or respect for authority, and dedicated entirely to satisfying their shameless appetites, as if the miraculous waters of baptism had never washed away their sins. " The Indians' insistence on clinging to their customs had to be the work of Satan—there was no other explanation—which is why the friars went out to hunt down and lasso the deserters and then whipped their doctrine of love and forgiveness into them.

Padre Mendoza had lived a rather dissolute youth before he became a missionary. The idea of satisfying shameless appetites was not new to him, and for that reason he sympathized with the neophytes. He had, besides, a secret admiration for his rivals the Jesuits because they had progressive ideas; they were not like other religious groups, including the majority of his Franciscan brothers, who made a virtue of ignorance. Some years earlier, when he was preparing to assume responsibility for the San Gabriel mission, he had read with great interest the report of a Jean François de La Pérouse, a traveler who described the neophytes in the California missions as sad beings bereft of personality and robbed of spirit, who reminded him of the traumatized black slaves on the plantations of the Caribbean. The Spanish authorities attributed La Pérouse's opinions to the regrettable fact that the man was French, but his writings made a profound impression on Padre Mendoza. Deep in his heart, he had almost as much faith in science as he did in God, which is why he decided to transform the mission into a model of prosperity and justice. He proposed to win followers among the Indians through persuasion, rather than lassos, and to retain them with good works rather than lashings. He achieved that goal in spectacular fashion. Under his direction, the neophytes' existence improved to such a degree that had La Pérouse passed through, he would have been astounded. Padre Mendoza could have boasted—though he never did—that the number of baptized at San Gabriel had tripled, and that runaway converts never stayed away long; the fugitives always returned, repentant. Despite the hard work and sexual restrictions, the Indians came back because the padre showed them mercy and because they had never before had three meals a day and a solid roof to shelter them from storms. The mission attracted travelers from the Americas and Spain who came to this remote territory to learn the secret of Padre Mendoza's success. They were impressed with the fields of grains and vegetables; with the vineyards producing good wine; with the irrigation system, inspired by Roman aqueducts; with the stables and corrals; with the flocks grazing on hills as far as the eye could see; with the storehouses filled with tanned hides and botas of tallow. They marveled at the peaceful passing of the days and the meekness of the converts, whose fame as basket weavers and leather workers was spreading beyond the borders of the province. "Full belly, happy heart," was the favorite saying of Padre Mendoza, who had been obsessed with good nutrition ever since he'd heard of sailors suffering from scurvy when a lemon could have prevented their agony. He believed that it is easier to save the soul if the body is healthy, and therefore the first thing he did when he came to the mission was replace the eternal corn mush that was the basic diet of the neophytes with meat stew, vegetables, and lard for tortillas. He provided milk for the children only with Herculean effort, because every pail of foaming liquid came at the cost of wrestling a wild range cow. It took three husky men to milk one of them, and often the cow won. The missionary fought the children's distaste for milk with the same method he used to purge them once a month for intestinal worms: he tied them up, pinched their nostrils together, and thrust a funnel into their mouths. Such determination had to yield results; thanks to the funnel, the children grew up strong and with resilient characters. The population of San Gabriel was worm-free, and it was the only colony spared the deadly epidemics that decimated others, although sometimes a cold or an attack of common diarrhea dispatched a neophyte to the other world.

From Zorro by Isabel Allende. Copyright © 2005 by Isabel Allende. English-language copyright © HarperCollins Publishers.

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