In the prologue to Julia Alvarez’s new book, In the Name of Salomé, one woman says to another “I’m Nobody–Who are you?”, quoting Emily Dickinson’s well-known poem that contrasts the private world of two Nobodies with the public one of the Somebodies. Alvarez’s reference to this poem is particularly apt, as her novel tells the stories of two women who spent the better part of their lives in service to the Somebodies’ world, women who made repeated personal and professional sacrifices for the good of their patria and for the powerful and politically driven men with whom they lived and worked.

It should be said that the two women upon whom Alvarez’s characters are based, the poet Salomé Ureña de Henríquez and her daughter Camila Henríquez Ureña, can hardly be called nobodies. Unlike Dickinson, only eight of whose poems were published while she was alive, Salomé Ureña (1850-1897) became quite famous in the Dominican Republic during her lifetime. She was awarded the national medal of poetry and founded the first school of higher education for women in the country. Her daughter Camila (1894-1973) also achieved a great deal professionally. A professor of Spanish at Vassar for many years, she left her teaching position there at the age of 65 to join Castro’s revolution in Cuba, where she taught literature throughout the country.

Despite her professional accomplishments, Camila considered herself a nobody, “a minor character,” in comparison with the numerous heroes and heroines of her family: her father Francisco Henríquez who was, briefly, president of the Dominican Republic; her brothers Pedro, a Norton lecturer at Harvard, and Maximiliano, an ambassador; and, of course, her famous mother. At the conclusion of the novel’s prologue we are told that Camila has a habit of erasing herself and that she has seen her mission in life as preserving and telling the stories of these “great ones who have passed on,” particularly that of her mother who died when she was 3.

On the surface, the story Camila has to tell about her mother’s life is one of triumph. In a culture that encouraged women’s silence and subservience, one in which they were taught to sew instead of to write and to offer their ideas in public discussions only when directly questioned, Salomé Ureña became a nationally known and revered poet and a political activist. Certainly there are elements of triumph in her story as told by Alvarez: A teenage girl, dreaming of setting her country free, writes a series of politically charged poems that attract the attention of her nation and perhaps contribute to the rebellions that erupt throughout the country. Initially, these poems are delivered to the newspaper without her consent and are published under a pseudonym, but at the age of 23 she finds the courage to sign her own name to one and takes it to the paper herself. After doing so, she becomes a national figure who is showered with eminent visitors and, a few years later, receives the national medal.

However, Alvarez also illustrates that the acceptance and accolades Salomé Ureña received were the product of, and contingent upon, her writing a particular kind of poetry, namely politically inspirational poetry, poetry of and for the public sphere of the Somebodies, to return to Dickinson’s dichotomy–in other words to write as la musa de la patria rather than as a woman. This kind of reception is hardly unusual for female poets, many of whom have been commended for being unlike other female writers. In Alvarez’s book, Salomé is treated to this type of back-handed praise when at the ceremony awarding her the national medal, someone calls out “What a man that woman is!”–which, she wryly comments, “was meant to be a compliment, I suppose.”

When Salomé does write personal poems based on her emotions and experiences, her male audience does not greet them with the kind of approval they offered her more public verse. After showing her husband one of a group of poems she describes as having been written “in a voice that came from deep inside me. It was not a public voice. It was my own voice … , ” she is told by him, “You must not squander away your talent by singing in a minor key, Salomé. You must think of your future as the bard of our nation.” Her son Pedro similarly dismisses her “intimate poems” by leaving many of them out of the posthumous collection of her work he publishes.

These personal poems, however, are the ones that resonate most strongly with the female characters in the book. Camila finds herself poring over them, they are the favorites of Salomé’s sister, and, despite their “minor” subject matter, Alvarez shows that they are also capable of inciting dramatic response in a scene she sets in a cafetal in Cuba. Camila has come to the factory as part of a literacy brigade and one morning decides to set aside the suggested texts in order to read the women sorting coffee beans one of Salomé’s unpublished poems about motherhood. She then tells them her mother’s story. The women respond by clacking their scoopers on the table, creating a noise that drowns out the calls for order “in the name of Fidel, in the name of the revolution.”

In its assertion of the power of literature, and specifically of poetry, this scene is far from an anomaly in the book. In the Name of Salomé includes many such examples depicting literature’s capacity for sustenance and inspiration in both the public and private spheres. Although cumulatively the book asserts the power of literature, Alvarez does undercut this assertion through her characters’ insights and choices. She does so most notably through Salomé herself, who at one point says, “But I had lost heart in the ability of words to transform us into a patria of brothers and sisters” and, for the most part, abandons writing poetry when she decides to open her school. Late in life, after her country has been through more than 30 changes of government in 50 years, Salomé has also become dispirited about the Dominican Republic’s quest for independence. When a young poet promises her, “We will build the patria you wanted, poetisa,” she sighs, thinking, “I had heard this before.”

Whereas Salomé becomes exhausted and increasingly pessimistic, Camila experiences a burst of optimism and a renewed sense of purpose in her old age. Alvarez emphasizes the opposing trajectories of the two women’s lives by telling their stories in reverse order. Alternating in eight two-part sections, Salomé’s story moves forward in time and Camila’s backward. Although this strategy, unfortunately, makes it somewhat difficult to visualize the arc of Camila’s life upon finishing the book, it does enable Alvarez to set up some interesting parallels in her two-part sections and also allows the mother and daughter to be physically united in the last section of the book, which deals with Camila’s gestation and birth.

By shifting back and forth between these two women’s lives, Alvarez is able to compare and contrast the outcomes of their differing choices, most notably that of whether to marry and have children. The decision is treated as a highly difficult one. For Salomé, being a wife and mother is a source of both joy and depletion; for Camila to not be brings both freedom and loneliness, a sense of being “a bead unstrung from the necklace of the generations.” The choices these and other characters make in trying to serve their county are presented as similarly complex, and their drive to do so as both an exhilarating and oppressive force. “Who can explain it?” Alvarez asks. “That dark love and shame that binds us to the arbitrary place where we happened to be born.”

Throughout In the Name of Salomé, she does not pretend to be able to. Near the book’s conclusion, when Camila’s niece asks her what she should do with her future, the older woman replies, “It was wrong to think that there was an answer in the first place, dear. There are no answers.” There is only, she indicates, the continuing struggle. In refusing to offer clear answers to the many questions she addresses in this ambitious book, Julia Alvarez treats her readers with similar respect. EndBlock