Summary and book reviews of Silver, Sword, and Stone by Marie Arana

Silver, Sword, and Stone

Three Crucibles in the Latin American Story

by Marie Arana

Silver, Sword, and Stone by Marie Arana X
Silver, Sword, and Stone by Marie Arana
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  • Published:
    Aug 2019, 496 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rose Rankin
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About this Book

Book Summary

Against the background of a thousand years of vivid history, acclaimed writer Marie Arana tells the timely and timeless stories of three contemporary Latin Americans whose lives represent three driving forces that have shaped the character of the region: exploitation (silver), violence (sword), and religion (stone).

Leonor Gonzales lives in a tiny community perched 18,000 feet above sea level in the Andean cordillera of Peru, the highest human habitation on earth. Like her late husband, she works the gold mines much as the Indians were forced to do at the time of the Spanish Conquest. Illiteracy, malnutrition, and disease reign as they did five hundred years ago. And now, just as then, a miner's survival depends on a vast global market whose fluctuations are controlled in faraway places.

Carlos Buergos is a Cuban who fought in the civil war in Angola and now lives in a quiet community outside New Orleans. He was among hundreds of criminals Cuba expelled to the US in 1980. His story echoes the violence that has coursed through the Americas since before Columbus to the crushing savagery of the Spanish Conquest, and from 19th- and 20th-century wars and revolutions to the military crackdowns that convulse Latin America to this day.

Xavier Albó is a Jesuit priest from Barcelona who emigrated to Bolivia, where he works among the indigenous people. He considers himself an Indian in head and heart and, for this, is well known in his adopted country. Although his aim is to learn rather than proselytize, he is an inheritor of a checkered past, where priests marched alongside conquistadors, converting the natives to Christianity, often forcibly, in the effort to win the New World. Ever since, the Catholic Church has played a central role in the political life of Latin America—sometimes for good, sometimes not.

In Silver, Sword, and Stone Marie Arana seamlessly weaves these stories with the history of the past millennium to explain three enduring themes that have defined Latin America since pre-Columbian times: the foreign greed for its mineral riches, an ingrained propensity to violence, and the abiding power of religion. What emerges is a vibrant portrait of a people whose lives are increasingly intertwined with our own.

CHAPTER 1
STILL SEEKING EL DORADO

Peru is a beggar sitting on a bench of gold.

—Old Peruvian adage

In the stinging cold just before dawn, Leonor Gonzáles leaves her stone hut on a glacial mountain peak in the Peruvian Andes to trudge up a path and scour rock spills for flecks of gold. Like generations before her, she has teetered under heavy bags of stone, pounded it with a crude hammer, ground it to gravel with her feet, crushed it to a fine sand. On rare, lucky days, she teases out infinitesimally small motes of gold by swirling the grit in a mercury solution. She is only forty-seven, but her teeth are gone. Her face is cooked by a relentless sun, parched by the freezing winds. Her hands are the color of cured meat, the fingers humped and gnarled. She is partially blind. But every day as the sun peeks over the icy promontory of Mount Ananea, she joins the women of La Rinconada, the highest human habitation in the world, to scale the steep escarpment that leads toward the ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The multi-layered structure and depth of detail make the book as engrossing as it is informative, and while Arana avoids prescriptions for the future or current policy, her message is clear—exploitation, violence and religion define Latin America, and for change to come, these legacies will require a reckoning that the world has been unprepared thus far to make.   (Reviewed by Rose Rankin).

Full Review Members Only (973 words).

Media Reviews

New York Times - Álvaro Enrigue
...Silver, Sword, and Stone is just as illuminating about the current political moment, in which the cultural and linguistic line dividing the United States from its hemispheric neighbors for more than 200 years could become a fortress wall. She reads recent episodes in Latin American history in the contentious but essential key of race relations, which are at the core of the ideological confrontations in this era of national populism.

The Washington Post - Tom Gjelten
The sad tale of the conquest and what followed over the next centuries in Latin America has been related many times before, but Arana, a novelist, has turned it into literature. Though meticulously researched, the book’s greatest strengths are the power of its epic narrative, the beauty of its prose and its rich portrayals of character.

The Guardian - Carrie Gibson
Arana employs the idea of “epigenetic inheritance”, a relatively recent area of scientific inquiry that examines how a social environment – for instance, a war zone – can influence the biology and behavior of generations of people. Rather unscientifically, however, she applies it to an entire continent. Discussing Mexico, she writes that it “has been unable to rid itself of its violent propensities. They are primal catalysts, after all; bred in the bone, difficult to overcome”. To drive the point home, she entitles her epilogue “It’s just our nature”. Change “our” to “their” and that could be a Fox News chyron.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
A profoundly moving and relevant work that provides new ways of thinking about the 'discovery of America.

Author Blurb Candice Millard, author of Hero of the Empire
I have never before read a book of such astonishing breadth and intricate depth, capturing both the magnificent sweep of history and the gripping immediacy of journalism. The stories she tells will break your heart and blow your mind, but they will also give you a much clearer understanding of Latin America and a deep sense of wonder at the strength and resilience of its people

Author Blurb Jon Meacham, author of The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels
An elegant and incisive writer and observer, Marie Arana has given us a thoughtful and revealing portrait of the fabled—and too-little-understood—world of Latin America. Combining history with contemporary reportage, Silver, Sword & Stone is compelling reading.

Author Blurb John Hemming, author of The Conquest of the Incas
Like a condor soaring above the Andes, Marie Arana gives a sweeping overview of Latin American history. History is usually written by the winners, but this book throbs with passion for the victims and underdogs. It also celebrates the cultural triumphs, exuberance and generosity that make Latin America so lovable.

Author Blurb Juan Gabriel Vásquez, author of The Sound of Things Falling
To trace the soul of a continent is an extraordinary feat, and Marie Arana does it with scholarly precision, moral thoroughness and elegance of style. For anyone interested in understanding—really understanding—what Latin America is and where it comes from, Silver, Sword and Stone has to be the first step.

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Beyond the Book

The Debate on Human Rights at Valladolid (1550-1551)

Painting of Bartolomé de las CasasFor Americans accustomed to the myth of Europeans settling largely empty lands, where Natives barely featured, it can be difficult to envision the New World as densely populated with indigenous societies. But in Central and South America, before the arrival of European germs and conquistadors, that was precisely the situation—the Americas contained an estimated 40-140 million people at the turn of the 16th century when Columbus arrived.

It's impossible to know the exact number, since the scale of deaths from 1492 onward was so vast and the colonizers didn't record the grisly toll. Devastating diseases that indigenous peoples had no immunity to, such as smallpox, ravaged the entire continent. Those they didn't kill, the Spanish ...

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