If you’re drawn to novels with a broad sweep of time and place, The Wind Knows My Name, the latest from Isabel Allende, deserves a place on your reading list. Fans of Allende’s work, which includes more than a dozen works of fiction, including her best known book, The House of the Spirits, will recognize the narrative drive and her knack for merging the elements of a story.
The novel opens in Vienna, Austria in 1938. For the venerable old city’s Jewish inhabitants, “the stench of fear, like rust and rotting garbage” is heavy in the winter air. Germany had annexed the country in the spring and the Nazis moved quickly to assert control and dominance. They banned opposition and decreed a range of antisemitic policies, including the confiscation of property. Jews with the means and ability to leave were doing so. England. The United States. South America. Any destination where visas could be obtained would do.
The opening section is perhaps the most powerful in the entire novel as it shows in gripping detail how the noose tightened, escape routes narrowed, and options became more dire. Samuel Adler was just a child, a violin prodigy, when his father was nearly beaten to death and deported to the camps. Samuel’s mother tries to obtain a visa to emigrate to Chile. There’s almost nothing Rachel Adler won’t sacrifice to protect her child, including physical debasement at the hands of a corrupt consular official, an effort that ultimately fails. Samuel will never know about his mother’s sacrifice. The five-year-old is put aboard a kindertransport train bound for England, alone, with only his violin case. The last time he sees his mother is on the platform. It’s an image Samuel will carry into his old age.
Allende then shifts the scene to El Salvador and Leticia, who as a young girl clings to her father’s back as he fords the Rio Grande river. It’s another case of a family fleeing violence, the horrific El Mozote massacre that wiped out hundreds of men, women, and children in a remote rural village. Allende minces no words about who bears responsibility for the atrocity. “For years, the United States intervened in Latin American politics to defend their economic interests in the region, facilitating cruel repression.” The El Mozote massacre was perpetrated by a military operative trained by the CIA at the School of the Americas. For years the U.S. denied involvement and responsibility.
A single photograph is all Leticia has to remind her of her mother. The photograph and the memories it evokes bind her to another refugee, Anita, who is separated from her mother at the southern border by American authorities operating under revised orders issued by a president who is never named but is obviously Donald Trump. Refuting the notion that separating children from their families is somehow un-American, Allende reminds readers that enslaved parents often had their children taken from them and sold, while the children of Native people were taken and placed in boarding schools for the dubious purpose of civilizing them.
“Here,” says Selena, a social worker working on Anita’s case, “only white children are considered sacred.”
At its core, The Wind Knows My Name is about loss suffered by people forced to flee persecution of one kind or another. Nazis, right-wing death squads, narcos, the mindless cruelty driven by fear or greed. It’s an all too familiar story. By now we should understand that migrants arrive at borders for reasons other than material gain. Far too many people have no choice other than to pack what they can carry and set out for the unknown.
This review originally appeared in the California Review of Books.