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Monday, March 30, 2009

Baby Jesus Pawn Shop

Lucia Orth’s debut novel, Baby Jesus Pawn Shop, is long on setting and atmosphere, immersing its readers in the brutality of a 1982 Manila still under the thumb of Dictator Ferdinand Marcos. By 1982, Marcos was dying of kidney failure but he was determined to win one final “democratic” election to solidify, in the eyes of the rest of the world, his hold over the Philippines. Most people, of course, suffered tremendous hardships under his rule and some of the braver ones were now turning to demonstrations, bombs and assassinations in hope of overthrowing the Marcos regime.

It is a world in which no one can be trusted, including representatives of the U.S. government stationed in the Philippines. Marcos wants to stay in power and will do whatever it takes to make that happen. The U.S. government fears losing access to the military bases it maintains in the Philippines and appreciates the relative stability of the brutal Marcos regime. Those who want to overthrow Marcos and his henchmen fear the spies who seem to be everywhere.

Into this tense and volatile world comes Rue Caldwell, a woman whose husband represents the United States in its dark dealings with Marcos and his generals. Rue may be a naïve woman when she arrives in Manila but she is nobody’s fool. She is a compassionate woman and she tends to identify with the people who cook, clean, and drive for her, a quality that exposes their world to her in all of its precarious ugliness.

The blinders finally come off Rue’s eyes for good when she comes to know her driver, Doming, a man who, some years before, had been forced to flee his native village after making a symbolic attempt to avenge the government’s murder of his father. From the beginning, there is sexual tension between the two but more important is the way the world is changing drastically for both of them. Rue is shaken by the realization that her husband and her country are not what she thought them to be, and Doming is being drawn deeper and deeper into the Marcos opposition.

The question becomes how much each is willing to risk to do the right thing.

Lucia Orth’s story of what life under Marcos was like for the average Filipino puts the dictator and his ludicrous wife into perspective in a way that history books will never be able to do it. It is an education.

Rated at: 4.0

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