Kali Fajardo-Anstine delivers a portrait of womanhood in Colorado in her debut novel, Woman of Light. She tells the story of multiple women across three generations of an indigenous and mixed-race family. Moving back and forth across time, Fajardo-Anstine connects the distant years with stories of difficult circumstances, racism, and misogyny. Still, there are a few light-hearted moments to leaven the intensity.
Early on, we meet Desiderya, a grandmotherly woman also known in her community as the Sleepy Prophet. Later in life, she adopts an abandoned baby boy, whom she names Pidre. Fajardo-Anstine follows Pidre’s early life, particularly as he connects with Simodecea, a sharp shooting circus performer.
Pidre and Simodecea start their own performing theater, set in a unique natural cave that works like an amphitheater. They have two daughters, Maria Josefina and Sara. And naturally, things don’t go as planned with the business and property it exists on.
The young sisters have a life their parents never planned. Ultimately, Maria Josefina moves to Denver and Sara has two children with an abusive man. Those two young people, Diego and Luz, are really at the heart of this novel.
The early generations extend like spokes from their story. By the time Fajardo-Anstine reaches this part of the story, it’s the 1930s and there’s plenty of race and class-related turmoil. Luz and Diego, along with their circle of friends and family, encounter a variety of challenges as they become adults.
Ultimately, Fajardo-Anstine’s story wasn’t as captivating as I hoped. She moves between the various generations, weaving a web that tangles the novel. Just as I settled into one story, the perspective changed to another. I repeatedly wished for more detail and time spent with Simodecea, whose story broke my heart.
Fajardo-Anstine is somewhat heavy-handed with her social commentary, especially on the Anglo versus Mexican versus Indigenous people settling in Colorado. All of her points are valid, but the writing was less nuanced. Instead, the author injects a present-day mindset into the thoughts of her characters. And that just didn’t ring true for me.
On the other hand, I love that publishers are offering diverse writers an opportunity to tell unique stories. Apparently, much of this story draws from Fajardo-Anstine’s own family history. And as an amateur genealogist, I know how important these stories are. I also know that women’s history is often lost once you go back past 1900. Official documents just ignored the contribution of women. Taking the threads from real documents and building an imagined history is a labor of love. I admire the tenacity and creativity it takes to pull this together into a novel.
I joined a large and diverse book group to discuss this book. While we found some interesting topics in the plot, as a whole the group didn’t love Woman of Light. Still, if you’re curious about women’s role in the history of Colorado and the surrounding area, this is an interesting fictional view.