By Kate Scott
Chilean-American author Isabel Allende is famous for using magical realism in her fiction, a stylistic attribute that often overshadows how deeply her stories are rooted in her personal experiences. For instance, her debut novel, The House of Spirits, was formed out of a real-life letter to her ailing grandfather. Allende's first cousin once removed was Salvador Allende, the controversial former president of Chile and the first Marxist to come to office in Latin America through open elections; Isabel eventually fled her home country to escape death threats from the Chilean government. That background informs her latest work, In the Midst of Winter, which revolves around three strangers, stuck in a freezing New York City apartment during a massive blizzard, who gradually share important pieces of their past. The characters tell stories of fear and uncertainty related to their immigration to the U.S.—and in typical Allende fashion, experience supernatural encounters aalong the way.
Lucia Maraz is a Chilean immigrant in her early 60s who has lived in Canada and the U.S., on and off, for more than 20 years. Although she speaks perfect English and enjoys her job teaching Latin American Studies at NYU, she's never quite felt at home in America. "In the first few weeks, when her decision to leave Chile had hung heavy on her—there at least she could employ her sense of humor in Spanish—she had consoled herself with the certainty that everything changes," Allende writes.
Lucia's intense empathy keeps her at odds with her landlord and boss at NYU, Richard Bowmaster. An American with roots in Brazil, Richard lives in the massive apartment upstairs from her and keeps the building unusually cold; he's curt and seemingly unable to relate to Lucia, despite his undeniable attraction to her. On his way home during the biggest snowstorm of the season, Richard rear-ends a young woman's car. The woman is Evelyn Ortega, a nearly mute, incredibly short, and easily terrified immigrant from Guatemala who barely stops long enough for Richard to give her his business card. When Evelyn shows up on his doorstep hours later, he calls upon Lucia to translate and help him find out what's wrong.
In the Midst of Winter mostly focuses on Lucia, Richard, and Evelyn's lives before they were snowed in. Lucia left Chile as a young adult in the 1970s, during the Chilean coup d'etat. Her brother, Enrique, was a young and angry Marxist who sought to overthrow and dismantle any signs of capitalism in his country. His affiliations made Lucia and her family a target, and their lives were threatened if they didn't turn Enrique over to the government. Similarly, Evelyn's eldest brother, Gregorio, was recruited into a gang at 14 years old and was subsequently murdered. Evelyn was also attacked, and her fear for her own safety rendered her mute shortly thereafter. Evelyn's grandmother smuggled the teenager out of Guatemala in 2008; having successfully crossed the border into the U.S., Evelyn was picked up by border patrol but saved from deportation because she was a minor and her mother lived in Chicago.
Evelyn's panicked about being sent back to Guatemala, and her alarm isn't a thing of the past. Since his inauguration in January, President Trump has made several attempts to prevent additional immigrants from coming to the U.S., most prominently by promising voters a wall separating Mexico from its northern neighbor, and while he hasn't delivered on this proclamation, he continues to make it a staple of his presidency. On September 5, the Trump administration rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a policy that allowed minors who were born in or entered the U.S. as illegal immigrants to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and to be eligible for a work permit." Despite dozens of studies showing that DACA has resulted in decreases in poverty, improvements in immigrants' mental health and outlook, and a notable boost in the economy, Trump continues to create policies that disregard prevailing data about the benefits of immigration to the U.S.
Lucia and Evelyn seem to be extensions of Allende's personal history—the author has said she's felt like a foreigner for much of her life—but the characters of In the Midst of Winter are left with a bit of hope. After Evelyn was attacked, her grandmother took her to "the shaman Felicita, a healer and guardian of the traditions of the Maya." The shaman gave Evelyn a psychedelic tea that rendered her ill and immobile; however, on her psychedelic trip, she saw a "mother jaguar" take her brother away safely from the bridge where he died. When the shaman asked her what she saw, she was able to speak again. It's a wondrous scene, an example of how Allende uses imagination to help readers gain a better understanding of what the immigrant experience is really like for many people in this country. v