ABOUTBOOK: In 1932 El Salvador, Elena de Contreras and her husband Ernesto live the luxurious life of the very wealthy: regular trips to Europe and the United States, vast amounts of property, several gorgeous homes. In sharp contrast to their privileged existence, however, are the lives of the coffee workers they employ, who know only the hardships of back-breaking labor and low wages. Mercedes Prieto, a Pipil Indian, comes from such a background. After losing her son and husband in the aftermath of a violent uprising against rich plantation owners, she flees with her daughter Jacinta to work in the household of Elena de Contreras. Their arrival sets in motion a spellbinding story that takes three generations to unfold, as the two families become inexorably intertwined and their private turmoil mirrors the upheaval of the world around them. Rich in history, tradition, color, and drama, Bitter Grounds is at once poetic and unsentimental, a page-turning saga that satisfies and entertains to the very last drop. DISCUSSIONQUES: Q do the generations change, in their attitudes, beliefs, aspirations? Consider the world events surrounding these characters during the span of the novel, from 1932 to 1977: How are outside forces (economic depression, war, worker rebellion, civil unrest) reflected in their daily lives? Q is the significance of "Los Dos," the daily radio soap opera-both its content and the rituals of its audience? Q provides a way of life in El Salvador. What is its role in the lives of these characters, symbolically and literally? Q are elements of magic realism to this story. Discuss examples of magic realism and their role in the story: do you think the departure from reality adds to or detracts from your belief in these events? Why do you think the author chose to include them? Other writers (Laura Esquivel, Isabel Allende, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, to name a few) have also used this effect; if you've read their work, compare it to Bitter Grounds, or discuss if or why Latin American writing lends itself to magic realism. Do any North American writers try their hands at it? Q (page 130) Discuss other characters whose lives take equally dramatic and irreversible turns. Q Grounds depicts the sharp differences between the lives of the rich and the poor. But the two classes also shared much in common. In what ways were they alike? Q the poor turned to the left for help politically, the rich turned to the right, and this polarization eventually led to a tragic civil war. Who do you think is to blame for the failure to find a middle ground? Q writing about women are sometimes accused of doing so at the expense of their male characters. Discuss the role of men in this novel and how you feel they are portrayed. Q did you find interesting about mother/daughter relationships in Latin America? And how do these differ, if at all, from the way things work in our country? Q the final analysis, who were the winners and who were the losers in Bitter Grounds? AUTHORBIO: Sandra Benitez was born in Washington, D.C., and spent her childhood and early adulthood in Mexico and El Salvador. She then moved to the United States and received an undergraduate degree and a master's degree from Northeast Missouri State University. She published her first novel, A Place Where the Sea Remembers, when she was 52. She lives with her husband in Edina, Minnesota.
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Winner of the 1998 American Book Award
Spanning the years between 1932 and 1977, this beautifully told epic is set in the heart of El Salvador, where coffee plantations are the center of life for rich and poor alike. Following three generations of the Prieto Clan and the wealthy family they work for, this is the story of mothers and daughters who live, love, and die for their passions.
Bitter Grounds, Sandra Benitez's American Book Award-winning novel, chronicles the lives of three generations of women in war-torn El Salvador. After losing most of their family during the massacres of 1932, Mercedes Prietas and her daughter Jacinta go to work for Elena de Contreras and her family, who own enormous coffee and cotton plantations. During the next 40 years, the women of both families help each other endure the many hardships that come their way. Benitez manages to portray both the poor and the rich women in this book as complex, sympathetic characters. Like the heroines of Los dos, their favorite radio soap opera, the women in this novel suffer heartache, unrequited love, betrayal, and the loss of loved ones. One by one, all of Jacinta's family members are killed amid the country's political turmoil. Elena's heart breaks when she discovers her best friend in bed with her husband on the eve of their daughter's marriage. The Contreras family struggles to retain control of its land during the late 1970s government-mandated redistribution of wealth. Through it all, the women sustain each other, even after circumstances separate them: "Sometimes, late at night or, most often, very early in the morning, when Jacinta lay in her cot in the little room she shared with Rosalba, her mother stirred within her. This was not craziness, but a consolation. To feel her mother's flesh, her bulk, shored up along the banks of her own bones and flesh." Bitter Grounds is a thoughtful, vivid account of the lives of some very resilient women.
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