Everything’s a story,” Sara Crewe, the heroine, says in Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess, the canonical colonialist children’s story of a girl who once had everything—including a pony and a lavish wardrobe for her and for her doll—thanks to British imperialism. Sara’s father, a colonel, is off in India pursuing a fortune in diamonds. When she is transformed into an orphan who has, temporarily, nothing, Sara continues to pretend she is a princess, using her imagination for survival, until her imagined luxury appears and her fortune is restored owing to the “magic” of the “Indian gentleman” next door and his servant, Ram Dass. For more than a hundred years, this novel has retained popularity, having been adapted into films and held up as an iconic example of the magic of imagination, replete with some of the most notable food scenes in children’s literature.
“The Jesus Donut,” the opening story of Jaime Cortez’s collection, Gordo, offers an alternative through an irreverent and often hilarious set of characters. Here is no mere Disneyfied substitution of different demographics for princess figures. When a doughnut truck emblazoned with “FLOUR CHILD” rolls up to the Gyrich Farms Worker Camp, out pops a white man whom the protagonist, Gordo, dubs Mister Kentucky, because he looks like “Mister Kentucky Fried Chicken.” Mister Kentucky opens the drawers in the van, and we discover, alongside Gordo, what is inside: “Oh my God, Jesus. All chocolate donuts! Some of them have little rainbow sprinkles on them or even better: COCONUT. This chocolate drawer is so beautiful. Nobody says nothing. We stare. It’s like a magic show.”
None of the children have money for doughnuts, or so it appears at first. Gordo says, “I feel embarrassed. I don’t have no twelve cents or even one cents.” Mister Kentucky does not offer them anything gratis. He is not the bestower of the magic: Cortez understands that capitalism, despite its long-standing reinforcement in children’s literature from the empires, is not benevolent. While temporarily impoverished and famished, Sara is handed a sixpence by a wealthy child and somehow manages to drill a hole in it and put it around her neck. In Gordo, little Olga pulls her coin (given to her by her dad) out of her shoe and exchanges it for power. She doesn’t want to be a princess. She wants to be a priest. She buys two doughnuts.
Olga charges her friends with getting cleaned up before she administers doughnut communion: “First, you cochinos have to wash your dirty hands and your faces and fix your hair, like on Sunday.” Yes, she is going to cut up the doughnuts and place a piece in each child’s mouth as she says “Body of Christ.” As she moves down the line, Gordo loses faith: Will there be any left? In a loaves-and-fishes moment of plenty, Gordo comments, “This is the way Jesus should taste.”
Of course, Olga is trying on a power she can never truly assume, for as Cesar says, “everybody knows girls can’t be no priests, and you can’t pretend to do Holy Communion, man. That’s blasphemy!” But, unlike Sara, whose fury nearly rises to violence when she is dubbed “Your Royal Highness” by other children who mock her for pretending to be a princess to sustain her sense of class privilege, Gordo notes, “Olga don’t care.” For the moment, she’s running the show: money, as in A Little Princess, seems to buy power.
But Olga’s key to continued, albeit temporary, eminence—the remaining doughnut, hidden away overnight—is overtaken by black ants. Cortez brings us along with Gordo into a slapstick finale as Olga tries to “squish” the ants to the other children’s jeers of “Yeah, Olga, you can take your ant-flavored donut and stick it up your butt!”
Like all comic writers, Cortez knows to up the stakes: Olga tries to wash the doughnut. As the scene closes, Olga is crying and Gordo is “laughing so good,” thinking, “Now we can laugh at the sky, because laughing about the broken, wet donut with the ant sweater is even better than eating it.”
Better than the doughnuts, better than the feast is the story, and a funny one at that. While suffused with childhood delight, “The Jesus Donut” doesn’t glorify the unrealistic acquisition of money and power, and counter to the literature of empire, it makes no use of the fantastical trope of a pauper and a wealthy savior. Olga’s doomed effort to replicate existing power structures is upended, and Gordo knows better than to settle for crumbs. Unlike Sara, who is rescued from being the butt of the joke by having her fortune returned, Olga rejoins the ranks. Choosing humor over the pathos of Burnett’s novel and other novels that feature poverty, Cortez offers a radical act of reimagining with a new, enduring child protagonist. One who knows the power of laughter.•
Join us on Zoom on Thursday, December 15, at 5 p.m. Pacific time, when Cortez will join CBC host John Freeman and special guest Sandra Cisneros to discuss Gordo. Please stop by the Alta Clubhouse to let us and your fellow book club members know your thoughts about the book. Register here for the event.