History can be a tricky thing. It asserts itself when we least expect it, and often in the least anticipated ways. Take A Ballad of Love and Glory, Reyna Grande’s first novel since 2009’s Dancing with Butterflies. (In the intervening years, Grande published two memoirs, 2012’s astonishing The Distance Between Us, which was a California Book Club selection, and its 2018 sequel, A Dream Called Home.) This new book takes place in Mexico in 1846 and 1847, during the Mexican-American War. Yet I defy anyone to read it in this moment without thinking about Ukraine and the Russian war of aggression that is presently underway. In A Ballad of Love and Glory, Grande portrays the U.S. invasion of Mexico through a similar perspective—as an imperialist land grab, justified by dubious precedent. “’Tis Mexico’s bad luck to have the United States as its neighbor,” an Irish-born U.S. soldier named John Riley reflects early in the novel. “Just as ’twas our bad luck to have England loomin’ across the Irish Sea.”
Riley is a historical figure who just prior to the start of hostilities deserted the U.S. Army to fight for Mexico. Eventually, he was asked to lead what became known as the Saint Patrick’s Battalion, an expatriate unit populated by other deserters, most of them Irish immigrants. Other than that, not much is known about his life, which makes him a perfect kind of cipher for a work such as this. A Ballad of Love and Glory, after all, is a work of fiction, with narrative necessities. For all that we learn—or must reassess—about the Mexican-American War, the book must also function as a novel, immersing us in its time and place: “the buzz of implication,” as Lionel Trilling once observed. Grande highlights that by juxtaposing Riley with an invented character, Ximena Salomé Benítez y Catalán, inspired by John Greenleaf Whittier’s 1847 poem “The Angels of Buena Vista,” from which Grande draws her epigraph. “Speak and tell us, our Ximena,” Whittier writes, “looking northward far away, / O’er the camp of the invaders, o’er the Mexican array.”
This, of course, is how literature works, as a conversation among voices and generations, from Whittier to Grande to us. It’s also a terrific device for framing the central tensions of the novel, which have less to do with the war per se than they do with the costs of empire and inequity. In the 1840s, the Irish were subjected to harsh discrimination in the United States. That’s something they and the Mexicans have in common, as A Ballad of Love and Glory reveals. “The Yanks spoke of the Mexicans as being nothing more than ignorant, filthy semisavages, a miserable mongrel race,” Grande writes. “Riley had heard this before about his own people, descendants of kings and chieftains, but Ireland was a conquered land after all.” What she’s suggesting is a natural affinity, which is only further illustrated by the relationship, at first platonic and then romantic, that develops between Riley and Ximena.
Grande is an assured writer, and the novel’s weave—which shifts throughout between the two protagonists—is deftly achieved. Both characters are conflicted, Riley out of loyalty to his wife and son back home in Ireland and Ximena because of her longing for the rancho she has been forced to abandon and for the husband killed in a skirmish with U.S. irregulars. At the same time, each is also driven by a sense of duty, a responsibility to something larger than themselves. “The war is here and the soldiers need us,” Ximena insists to her sister-in-law, Carmen, as the latter prepares to evacuate her home in Matamoros before the U.S. bombardment begins. “How can we run away?” The granddaughter of a curandera, Ximena understands that her own fate is to engage. “She looked down at her hands,” Grande writes. “They weren’t meant to be wrapped in white-laced gloves while fanning herself with expensive fans from Spain. Her hands were meant to heal.”
Here, Grande effectively flips the script, portraying a nuanced social milieu in which questions of class and privilege arise in complex and fascinating ways. Ximena represents a case in point: At a ceremonial dinner in Mexico City, she is judged by the wives of her country’s generals because of her appearance, “not just her attire but her bronze skin, which in their eyes betrayed an impurity of blood.” Yet “once she had a little wine in her, Riley watched her transform into a Tejana belle, as Ximena once told him her mother had hoped she would be. She chatted amiably with the ladies with ease, her impeccable Spanish revealing her good breeding, and little by little, he noticed that the women put their prejudices aside.”
Appearances, in other words, can be deceiving, which is an idea at the novel’s core.
This is important because Grande is not just telling a story; she means to reclaim history by framing it through a more expansive lens. On the one hand, this means showing us the Mexican-American War—and, indeed, U.S. manifest destiny—as the project of aggression that it was. On the other, it means indicting Mexican corruption, not least that of the country’s once and future president Antonio Lopéz de Santa Anna, who from exile brokered a private deal with U.S. president James Polk to give up the disputed Nueces Strip, now part of Texas, only to renege when he returned to power. A Ballad of Love and Glory recounts what happened next—the U.S. Army encroaching ever more deeply into Mexico, besieging cities, targeting civilian areas, enforcing a campaign of terror. After the war was finished, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo redrew the border to the Río Bravo (known in the U.S. as the Rio Grande). “Mexico is now half the country it used to be,” Ximena laments. “Imagine that. My rancho is officially in the United States now. The border has crossed me.”
The history of the United States holds these events as settled, ancient, and inevitable, a matter of (yes) destiny. It’s how the victors tell their stories, with no regard for all they’ve destroyed. In upending the dynamic, Grande is working a territory not unlike Viet Thanh Nguyen’s reimagining of the war in Vietnam. Her rigor gives A Ballad of Love and Glory a moral weight that could not be more relevant, in this time of atrocity and war.•