Kirstin Valdez Quade, who moved throughout the Southwest as a child, wanders those broad landscapes of desert and sagebrush again in her debut short story collection Night at the Fiestas. Set largely in northern New Mexico, the collection introduces us to people of belief: Catholics who trust in Christ’s suffering; those whose lives hinge on the evil glance of the ojo and the healing power of the curanderas; and atheists still clutching totems from the past.
In the title story, 16-year-old Frances heads to the raucous Fiestas of Santa Fe. There, a huge effigy of Old Man Gloom—Zozobra—goes up in flames each year, consuming worries, foul luck, and disappointments. Frances is excited. She’s reading the signs—a chance flirtation with a painter, the discovery of a bag of money, Zozobra’s magic—for proof that tonight, her life as a bus driver’s daughter, an overlooked girl, must change. And yet, don’t we all know that the evening makes promises the night won’t keep?
Uniting Valdez Quade’s characters is their tentative hope for salvation. In “The Five Wounds,” Amadeo Padilla goes above and beyond to make his redemption real. He has volunteered to play Jesus in a reenactment of the crucifixion. As an hermano of the Fraternidad Piadosa de Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno, he’s not play-acting. “This year Amadeo Padilla is Jesus” (emphasis mine). For him, as for many of the figures in Night at the Fiestas, life draws its meaning from symbols and signs. Amadeo is so close to expiating his laziness, his drinking, and his abuse of his ex-wife. It seems all he has to do now is urge the hermanos to drive the nails through his palms. But in the moment he cries out to God, he sees his mistake. It’s his daughter, Angel, 16 years old and pregnant, who has been forsaken—by him. In these stories, Valdez Quade’s characters find themselves either lost or saved, and the links connecting them to loved ones surface, rusted but strong.
Characters push and pull at those chains, struggling with loyalty, rage, and guilt: a daughter strives to avenge herself on the prosperous family that employed her father as a farmer; a remarried woman regrets giving up the expensive dress her ex-husband gave her; and a young man resists recognizing that his forever-wayward father might have changed. Young women, as abandoned daughters or early mothers, serve as Valdez Quade’s principal narrators, and she keenly illustrates her protagonists’ alienation. In “Family Reunion,” 11-year-old Claire escapes her atheist family for a week, hoping to fit in with a Mormon mother and daughter. When her escape sours, she remembers her real family: “[Her mother, father, and baby sister] were perfect, the three of them: related, joined. A triangle, the strongest shape there is.” As the only daughter of her mother’s first marriage, she sees no entry into her new family’s constellation. It’s an image that lingers in its precision.
Valdez Quade’s stories benefit from her exacting language. In “Nemecia,” Maria describes her revulsion at her older cousin Nemecia’s tidy daytime eating, a contradiction to her nighttime gorging: “The quick efficient bites, the movement of her jaw, the way the food slid down her throat—it sickened me to think her body permitting such quantities. Her exquisite manners and the ladylike dip of her head as she accepted each mouthful somehow made it worse.” The sentences summon a grotesque depiction of Nemecia’s daintiness—an effective way to describe a young girl who hides her darker impulses beneath a polished façade.
At times, Valdez Quade’s reliance on symbolism can overreach. This is a noticeable limitation for a collection that again and again seeks to explore the same familial ills—alcoholism, physical abuse, and divorce—through imagery. In “Canute Commands the Tides,” Margaret Noyes—a retiree recently arrived to New Mexico, her husband left behind back east, her daughter and grandchild on another continent—can’t seem to finish her painting of the Danish king Canute, who tried to defy the ocean by having his throne carried into the waves. To distract herself, she seeks comfort in the company of Carmen, her cleaning woman, and Carmen’s granddaughter. Margaret wants sleepovers, gossip sessions, and girls’ nights. But Carmen’s delinquent son Ruben intervenes. The story’s conclusion arrives suddenly: Ruben shoots a hole through Margaret’s ceiling. Margaret flees her own home, and Carmen and Ruben remain: “His face was buried in her lap, and she bent over him, so close their heads were nearly touching, the two of them as destructive and unstoppable as any force of nature.” The image of mother and son is apt: It is a union that Margaret, whose family has disintegrated, cannot merge with. And, much like Margaret’s painting (or Claire’s “triangle” family), the image is closed to her; it’s a space she cannot enter. Yet the sentence’s final clause insists unnecessarily on the image’s power. It approaches melodrama, as if a gunshot hadn’t been enough to jolt the story.
So, too, in “Nemecia,” Valdez Quade pushes the symbol: Now an adult, Maria recalls how her troubled cousin Nemecia tortured her when they were children, literally scarring young Maria’s face with her nail. It’s a terrible memory, one that is reinforced by the image of the broken-faced doll that has overseen Nemecia and Maria’s bedroom. But Valdez Quade closes this story more gracefully than “Canute,” lingering longer on Maria’s complicated feelings toward her cousin than on the resonance of the doll image. Adult Nemecia has changed her name and put aside her personal demons. Maria notes, “I was tempted to slip back into that same old envy for how easily Nemecia had let those years drop away from her, leaving me to remember her stories.” Maria’s struggle to move past what her cousin did to her is a poignant testament to how trauma that scars one family member—Nemecia—can take other victims.
These are sobering stories, but Valdez Quade, thankfully, isn’t above poking some fun at her characters. Pregnant Angel tells her pious father, “Weird, huh, that there’s a dick floating around in me? Did you ever think about that?… Jesus had his stuff in Mary… Couple of virgins. There’s something for your research.” And poor Frances’s hopes of sexually blossoming at the Fiestas aren’t simply naïve; they’re comically ironic, having been ignited by passages from Tess of the D’Urbervilles—a book she hasn’t finished reading.
Is there redemption in Night at the Fiestas? Disappointment and regret certainly, yet some of Valdez Quade’s characters manage to push past that. In summoning pity for a fallen priest, unmarried Crystal of “Ordinary Sins” comes to hope she may have the compassion to care for her unborn children. In their “[s]heer skin, warm, tangled limbs, tiny blue beating hearts,” they signal a possible future where she is a good mother. It’s a small hope, because nothing is certain for these families, nothing beyond the fact that their ties—in their trouble, their hurt, their pain—are binding.