Just one month ago, I found out about A Ballad of Love and Glory, the upcoming novel by Reyna Grande. Another author I love, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, mentioned it in a social media post, and I was instantly intrigued. Fast forward to the week after Thanksgiving, and I was thrilled that I was approved for an ARC of A Ballad of Love and Glory on NetGalley! The book doesn’t come out until March, and I was so happy to get an early look at it.
|A Ballad of Love and Glory by Reyna Grande|
|Number of Pages||384|
|Format I Read||eBook (NetGalley ARC)|
|Original Publication Date||March 15, 2022|
A Long Petal of the Sea meets Cold Mountain in this sweeping historical saga following a Mexican army nurse and an Irish soldier who must fight for their survival and their love, amidst the atrocity of the Mexican-American War—from the author of Across a Hundred Mountains and The Distance Between Us.
The life of Ximena, a gifted Mexican healer, is tragically upended in the spring of 1846 when the United States Army marches south to the Río Grande, provoking an unjust war with México. After her husband is killed by Texas Rangers, Ximena leaves her beloved ranch to serve her country’s cause, traveling as an army nurse from battlefield to battlefield.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the battlefield, John Riley, an Irish immigrant in the US Army, has grown disheartened by the brutal treatment of his fellow Irishmen at the hands of nativist officers. In an act of defiance, he swims across the Río Grande to join the Mexican Army and lead the Saint Patrick’s Battalion, a company of deserters determined to defend México against the northern invaders.
As the war intensifies, Ximena and John are drawn inexorably to each other but face an uncertain future together. Reyna Grande’s spellbinding tale, peopled by bold unforgettable characters and inspired by actual events, explores the conflicting meanings of courage, love and loyalty, while illuminating an unsung moment in history that continues to impact the US-México border to this day.
Special thanks to NetGalley and Atria Books for providing me with an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review!
There are two main elements of A Ballad of Love and Glory that piqued my interest in it story. One is that it highlights such an important (and under-discussed) time in history. Like Reyna Grande herself, who describes not learning about the Mexican-American War until college, I don’t believe I learned about it until college either. My first memory of hearing much about it was in a novel I was assigned during my junior year, George Washington Gómez by Américo Paredes. However, my knowledge of of the war was still lacking, and I’ve always found fiction to be an immersive way of learning.
A Ballad of Love and Glory is set during a real event, and it stars two real-life people, fictionalized here. As Mexico faces a looming war with the United States, Ximena is a curandera – a healer – who wants to help her country as she can. Dangerous as it may be, she works to heal the soldiers injured in battle. John Riley, an Irish immigrant, was fighting on the American side until he decided to switch and fight on behalf of Mexico. He was joined by numerous other immigrants – from Ireland, Germany, Poland, and more – who deserted the U.S. Army in favor of Mexico.
The second element that drew me to A Ballad of Love and Glory is that it highlights an intercultural, interracial couple. Ximena is a Mexican woman and John is an Irish immigrant, yet they bond over their shared beliefs. Both are Catholic, both believe in Mexico’s right to freedom from oppression, and both believe in their duty to serve their countries. I love seeing how two people who seem so different can have so much in common. (This is like my husband and me: He’s Peruvian and I’m an American woman of mainly English and Irish descent.)
In some ways, A Ballad of Love and Glory is a love story, but that romance generally takes a backseat to the war between Mexico and the U.S. Indeed, much of the focus is on the soldiers, battles, strategies, weapons, and so on. While we follow John and his role during battle, we also follow Ximena and her efforts to save and heal as many soldiers as she can. The reader gets plenty of detail on the different battles, who was leading the Mexican army during each one, and the politics of the war. We also get John’s perspective as an Irishman whose own country has been controlled by England for far too long. He draws comparison between Ireland and Mexico and their respective fights against the English and the Americans.
Early on, it was painful to read about how terribly John and his fellow immigrants were treated by the American soldiers they fought alongside. The Americans were so hateful and unforgiving, treating the immigrants with immense disrespect, hatred, and violence. Sadly, the U.S. does have a history of racism and aggression, something we still see to this day. It was no wonder when John and his immigrant compatriots deserted the U.S. Army to fight alongside people who gave them respect and kindness. Further, Mexico was more in line with John’s Irish beliefs and morals.
In the midst of all this hardship, John and Ximena do find solace and love in each other. It is a bit taboo at first. Ximena’s husband dies shortly before she meets John. However, John still has a wife and son back home in Ireland. He feels guilty for his growing feelings for Ximena, delaying a relationship between them. Is it wrong for him to find comfort in Ximena? His guilt plays a large role in A Ballad of Love and Glory – not just in his potential relationship with Ximena, but also in his role in leading his fellow immigrants to desert the U.S. Army and fight alongside Mexico. Is it his fault if they get killed in battle?
Although the book explores a lot of emotional depth and the turmoils of war, something about A Ballad of Love and Glory does also feel a tad distant, like we’re always kept just at arm’s length. I found myself wishing it was a bit more involved with the characters’ inner lives and feelings. Getting a first person narrative rather than the third person used in the novel may have made it more connective. This is no slight against Reyna Grande’s writing; she’s clearly talented and offers a contemplative novel here. But my personal preference is generally for something more immersive in the characters.
A Ballad of Love and Glory is ultimately a bittersweet novel. Given its wartime setting, and given the outcome of that war, you should go into this book knowing that it will dive into sadness, pain, and suffering. Some beloved characters won’t survive to the end; seeing Mexico torn apart, bit by bit, is horrible. But despite all of that, the novel also offers hope and love, and it ends with a light at the end of the tunnel. There is some happiness to be found even in the harshest of circumstances.
I thoroughly enjoyed A Ballad of Love and Glory, from its setting in Mexico to its intercultural examination. I learned a lot about the Mexican-American War, and I discovered eye-opening comparisons between two seemingly disparate countries. This is a book worth reading as soon as it’s available.
About the Author
Reyna Grande is the author of the bestselling memoir, The Distance Between Us, (Atria, 2012) where she writes about her life before and after she arrived in the United States from Mexico as an undocumented child immigrant. The much-anticipated sequel, A Dream Called Home (Atria), was released in 2018. Her other works include the novels, Across a Hundred Mountains, (Atria, 2006) and Dancing with Butterflies (Washington Square Press, 2009) which were published to critical acclaim. The Distance Between Us is also available as a young readers edition from Simon & Schuster’s Children’s Division–Aladdin. Her books have been adopted as the common read selection by schools, colleges, and cities across the country. She has two forthcoming books due to be published in 2022: A Ballad of Love and Glory (Atria, March 15), a novel set during the Mexican-American War, and an anthology by and about undocumented Americans called Somewhere We Are Human: Authentic Voices on Migration, Survival and New Beginnings (HarperVia, June 2022).
Reyna has received an American Book Award, the El Premio Aztlán Literary Award, and the International Latino Book Award. In 2012, she was a finalist for the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Awards, and in 2015 she was honored with a Luis Leal Award for Distinction in Chicano/Latino Literature. The young reader’s version of The Distance Between Us received a 2017 Honor Book Award for the Américas Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature and a 2016 Eureka! Honor Awards from the California Reading Association, and an International Literacy Association Children’s Book Award 2017.
Writing about immigration, family separation, language trauma, the price of the American Dream, and her writing journey, Reyna’s work has appeared in The New York Times, the Dallas Morning News, CNN, The Lily at The Washington Post, Buzzfeed, among others. In March 2020, she was a guest in Oprah’s Book Club.