Meet Estrella, a girl coming of age in rural California. Estrella and her family work as agricultural laborers in California. While California’s pastures of plenty paint a beautiful backdrop for the casual visitor, or more likely, the vast majority of Americans who buy the cheap produce shipped from the Central Valley to the four corners of the nation, the peach and grape orchards are the site of brutal labor conditions and little pay for Estrella’s family. The story of Estrella’s life takes shape for the reader out of fragmentary snippets of dialogue and scene-setting; the narrative constantly shifts perspective between characters in each scene.
In Under the Feet of Jesus, farm workers depend on their health, a running car, and abundant harvests in order to support their existence. All of these elements are uncertain and ultimately at the mercy of the natural world. Yet it is the un-natural human intervention of pesticide exposure which spurs the plot of Viramontes’ novel towards its enigmatic conclusion. Alejo, a teen who is friends with Estrella, is run down by a crop duster while stealing peaches from an orchard. Despite the high probability that the pilot of the duster would have been able to see Alejo running as fast as he could through the orchard, the plane’s shadow passes over Alejo “like a crucifix” before he is immersed in toxic spray. The disposable Alejo is poisoned, and falls to the care of Estrella’s family.
In order to save Alejo from the “daño of the fields,” Estrella must come to recognize Alejo will receive no help from the economic and political system which poisoned him in the first place. She’ll have to grasp the terrible tendrils of economic, racial, and environmental injustice in order to articulate her power within these unjust systems. In short, she’ll have to take action for herself, no matter the consequences to her own safety.
Under the Feet of Jesus is lean (only 176 pages in length) but rich in poetry, complex formal innovation, and weighty subject matter. Steinbeck fans will find some interesting allusions and inversions of The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden within Under the Feet of Jesus. With haunting, elegiac prose that highlights the natural beauty of California alongside the harsh poverty farm workers experience to this day, Viramontes matches Steinbeck stride for stride in this taught, powerful novel of the American West.
Review Submitted by: Shane D. Hall
Rating: Peachy! Read Under the Feet of Jesus and realize how rotten that rating is.