Judith Ortiz Cofer: “The Line of the Sun”

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

Here’s a book that should have gotten more attention than it has. Judith Ortiz Cofer’s 1989 novel, The Line of the Sun, expertly portrays the bifurcated world of Puerto Ricans who have moved to the mainland United States, in this case Paterson, New Jersey.

The novel is broken into two parts – and I use the word “broken” deliberately because the two parts don’t fuse into a seamless whole.

The first half of the novel is set in Puerto Rico, represented most spectacularly in the lush, tropical river valley of Rosa’s home, a sensual feast for the eyes, the ears, the nose, and – for the young Guzmán – the touch of skin on skin. Rosa’s house on stilts represents all that is truly wonderful and lush about Puerto Rico. “The valley itself seemed an earthly paradise,” writes Cofer, with “a natural grove of mango, papaya, and breadfruit trees.” A bit later in the novel, Cofer writes, “This was the beauty of the Island all concentrated into a few acres with river, valley, hill, and turquoise-blue sky.”

Like Mrs. Todd in Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs, Rosa is an herbalist. She teaches Guzmán the “names of each plant and what it was used for”:

Black sage was boiled into a tea and taken as a purgative. Geranium, its leaves dried and burned like incense, kept mosquitoes and . . . evil spirits away. Mint was used for dispelling the devil influences that hide in the body as gas. The seeds of the papaya fruit steeped in boiling water would make your blood thick and red, rekindling waning passions. And the passionflower – a vine that wraps itself around any tree like a clinging lover, its tiny orange fruit like kisses all over the bark – was a tonic that cures hysteria, turning a harpy into a pliable angel, a scoundrel into a solicitous husband.

The second half of the novel is – quite jarringly – in Paterson, New Jersey, the “promised land” that doesn’t begin to fulfill its promise of money and opportunity. While Guzmán is the main character in the Puerto Rican half of the novel, his young niece, Marisol, is the narrator of the Paterson half. She describes her family’s life in El Building, a tenement building that becomes a vertical barrio, and she tells of the increasing role she plays as her mother’s translator in a “foreign” world. When her legendary Uncle Guzmán comes to visit, she gets a glimpse of the Puerto Rico her family has left behind, a richer, more spectacular, more primal version than El Building and the neighborhood bodegas have to offer.

Of course, Cofer makes clear that there is true, unrelenting economic poverty in Puerto Rico, despite the riches of its landscape. It is not surprising that, like so many other Puerto Ricans, Marisol’s parents, Ramona and Rafael want to leave the island and seek their fortunes in El Norte. Guzmán, too, despite his ties to the sensual island, joins the U.S. Army, looking for adventure in far-flung places.

What Marisol ultimately discovers is that El Norte only partially fulfills its promise. Her parents do eventually move to a suburban home in New Jersey, but her mother continues to be separate from the world around her, dependent on her young daughter to navigate the bureaucratic world for her.

Still – through their stories, their cooking, their religious rituals – Guzmán, Ramona, Rafael, and the others of their generation keep alive the feeling of the island even while they are in the alienating north.

By the end of The Line of the Sun, the story has become Marisol’s. Will she be able to bring the two halves of the story – the island and El Norte – together in a meaningful way, or will she remain fragmented? You’ll have to read the novel to find out!

Join me this week on Pinterest as I pin images and resources related to Judith Ortiz Cofer and the Puerto Rican migration to the north. Take a look around at all my boards – or go straight to “My Favorite Books” board for Cofer treats.

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Listen:Listen to Judith Ortiz Cofer read from The Line of the Sun in this five-minute audio recording.


Image Credit: This photograph of Judith Ortiz Cofer is in the public domain (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Judith_Ortiz_Cofer.jpg).