The Blue Route staffers are looking forward to the AWP conference in San Antonio later this week. In addition to the exciting array of panels, the festival-like bookfair, and the Forum for Undergraduate Student Editors caucus, there will be the keynote address by the fabulous Helena María Viramontes. Below, our own Sarah De Kok reviews Their Dogs Came with Them, Viramontes’ ambitious 2007 novel.
In modern television shows, there are often multiple plots going on at once. The main characters will go through a series of events while side characters go on their own adventures. By the end of the show, viewers see both stories come together for the final resolution. In Helena Maria Viramontes’ character-driven novel Their Dogs Came With Them, a similar shift in point of view occurs. Told through a third-person point of view, each chapter follows a different character and the people around them. Viramontes focuses on the stories of four young women: Tranquilina, Turtle, Ermilia, and Ana. These women all cross paths in one way or another and are identified through similar character descriptions throughout the novel. The threat of their neighborhood being torn down to make way for a highway overpass is ever-present throughout the story, as is the curfew for citizens so authorities can helicopters can eliminate stray dogs to prevent the spread of rabies.
The story of one’s family is influential to one’s own story. In that same sense, the story of other characters has a hand in the story of the four main characters of Viramontes’ novel. Readers first meet a young Ermilia going to live with her grandparents. As Ermilia’s story progresses, she bands together with a group of girls each with their own stories to bring to the narrative. Ermilia grew up on the same street as Turtle, a gang member who later becomes homeless. Turtle struggles to survive on the streets while living in constant fear of being jumped by rival gang members. Turtle’s refusal to conform to gender norms by presenting herself as male keeps her safe while living on the streets of East Los Angeles. She is on edge from being homeless and staying away from rival gangs. Tranquilina’s life is devoted to serving others in her father’s church. Her story includes the story of her parents and how they traveled to southern California.
Ana’s story is primarily influenced by her brother, Ben. His mental illness takes up most of his time and energy, allowing little time to prioritize anything else. Ana must step in and care for her brother, becoming the mother figure that was lost to them as children. Readers may find themselves disappointed with the lack of Ana’s perspective on her experience. The way the book is advertised gives the impression this is a novel about four young women and their experiences as women living in southern California in the 1960s. To an extent, this is true. Viramontes includes universal experiences of women through each character; Turtle is assaulted as a young girl which leads her to shave her head and pass as male.
Viramontes uses point of view in a way that is unique to her story but leaves readers disconnected from making emotional connections to the characters. With the understanding that this is a character-driven piece, underneath all the layers of setting description and inner thoughts is a story about survival in a world of “us against them.” Despite these minor drawbacks, Viramontes’ novel creates a unique world with relatable characters for readers who are looking for a film-like experience.