60 pages • 2 hours readSandra Benitez
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The Weight of All Things, written by esteemed American author Sandra Benitez, is a lyrical novel portraying the effects of the civil war in El Salvador during the 1980s. This war between conservatives and communists is portrayed through the eyes of a child; detailing the brutality of both sides and showcasing the futility of war. Written in the third person omniscient style, the events of a brutal war are depicted with graphic detail, yet the use of magical realism endears us to the young protagonist. Benitez is well known for another novel chronicling historical events in El Salvador: Bitter Grounds, for which she won the American Book Award. Born in America, her father’s work led her to spend some of her youth in El Salvador. This firsthand experience informs her depiction of life in El Salvador in The Weight of All Things.
This guide refers to the 2001 Hyperion edition.
The Weight of All Things showcases the long-lasting effects of war and corruption on a land and its people. These effects are what the title refers to: the weight of carrying the traumatic memories and losses suffered during war. In telling the story of a nine-year-old boy who loses his mother, his home, and almost loses his life, Benitez deftly demonstrates the ripple effects that each act of violence makes throughout a community. This novel begins with an actual historical event, placing its fictional protagonist, Nicolás, at the scene. In March of 1980, a violent chaos erupts at Archbishop Romero’s funeral in San Salvador. Nicolás is with his mother for a visit, although he lives with his grandfather in the mountains. She has a passion for Archbishop Romero and brings Nicolás to his funeral.
When guns fire and bombs go off, Nicolás’s mother is shot and killed. He survives because her body covers him from harm. When volunteers eventually drag her away, Nicolás cannot accept that she has died and convinces himself that she is only wounded. He searches the town of San Salvador for her, hoping to find her recovering in a hospital. When he cannot find her, he returns home to El Retorno carrying her lost shoe, his only memento of his mother. He hopes to retrieve one of the letters she has mailed to him, which has her employer’s address. He believes he will procure the address, return to her employer’s house, and find his mother well and alive.
In the small village of El Retorno, Nicolás finds wreckage and disaster. The people have fled, and the town has been destroyed by an air raid. One of the only surviving buildings is the church. The wall that holds a shrine for La Virgen Milagrosa (his mother’s patron saint and the one for whom Nicolás is named—Nicolás de La Virgen Veras), remains intact. Nicolás takes this as a sign that La Virgen is watching out for him. He finds the statue of La Virgen in the rubble of the bombed church, pulls her out, and carries her with him for the rest of the novel. She becomes an essential part of his belief that he will survive, even in the face of grave danger.
Nicolás leaves the village and finds his home, the rancho, still intact. However, his grandfather is missing. He spends a night waiting for his Tata in their secret cave. In the morning, his grandfather returns, followed by a group of guerrilleros who have given him no choice but to grant them access to his rancho to use as a field hospital and place to rest. Dolores, the captain of the group, treats Nicolás and his grandfather well, but they fear for what will happen to them and their home. Dolores takes over the rancho and asks Nicolás to return to San Salvador with two of her men so he can reunite with his mother. Tata agrees that this is the best plan for Nicolás. Nicolás is nervous about the journey and prays to La Virgen. The statue speaks to him in his dreams, radiating beams of light from her hands, telling him he will be safe and protected.
Nicolás travels with two guerrilleros, Elias and Gerardo. They stop for a meal at Gerardo’s mother’s home. She is happy to see her son yet laments the fact that all of her children are fighting for one side of the war or the other, or else they have been killed by the fighting. She makes it clear that she is not happy with either side. From her home they will meet with a man named Alvarado who will provide them with medical supplies and a doctor named Eddy who will come back to the rancho to train some of the guerrilleros to be medics.
When they reach Alvarado’s home, he tells them that Nicolás will not be able to take the bus to San Salvador after all—the war has destroyed an important bridge. Alvarado hears Nicolás tell the tale of his missing mother and suggests that Nicolás write her a letter. He helps Nicolás write and mail it; Nicolás is very touched by Alvarado’s kindness.
The men return to Tata’s rancho with critical supplies and Doctor Eddy. Nicolás enjoys learning about medical work from his time with Eddy, however, he is exposed to a dangerous virus while helping Eddy care for a sick infant. Nicolás becomes violently ill, and in his fevered state he hallucinates about La Virgen and his mother coming to his rescue. Doctor Eddy helps him recover with medicine.
Soon after he recovers, Dolores sends him into El Retorno to retrieve a saw so that one of her men’s legs can be amputated. While there, the government army attacks Gerardo and Elias. Elias kills two men, but Gerardo dies. Nicolás witnesses the murders and is shattered. He and Elias carry Gerardo’s body and all the valuables taken off the dead soldiers back to the rancho. About a week after this, Delores and her crew learn that the army has located the guerrilleros at the rancho. They quickly pack the equipment and move out on foot. Nicolás and Tata decide to stay behind, hidden in the cave. From their hidden position, they can hear when the army arrives, destroying the rancho and searching for any remaining guerrilleros. They also hear an army helicopter fly over the woods where Dolores and her team are fleeing. The helicopter guns down the group that has come to feel like family to Nicolás. Nicolás leaves the cave to get water for his sick grandfather and is captured by the army. They take him to their captain, who decides that instead of killing him, he will give Nicolás a chance to learn another lifestyle. He forces Nicolás to join the Army, living in a garrison near Alvarado’s house.
As soon as he is held captive there, he begins to think about escaping. He has dreams in which La Virgen shows him the way to escape through a door in the pantry which leads to a little corner store. He works each night at digging through the plaster. On the last night in this garrison, he has a dream in which La Virgen tells him he will need to follow her at noon the next day, and he will need to be brave as a lion. Sure enough, the garrison is attacked the following afternoon by a truck full of guerrilleros. Nicolás just manages to escape through the pantry door but is grazed by a bullet. He follows the image of La Virgen to Alvarado’s house. There, his wound is taken care of and he is given a bed to rest. Yet he cannot bear the thought of being separated from his grandfather any longer, so he walks through the night and when he reaches the river near the rancho, there his grandfather stands, alive and well.
After the garrison is attacked, the army retaliates. People are afraid that their homes will be bombed or gunned down in the crossfire, so they begin to walk into the mountains, seeking safety. They come to El Retorno, and Nicolás and Tata join them in their journey. They all decide to walk to the river, where they will cross into Honduras to join a refugee camp there. They successfully reach the river, but throughout the night the rain begins pouring in Honduras. This causes the river to swell and makes crossing dangerous. Unbeknownst to the people, the army in El Salvador assumes that anyone who flees home must be a traitor, and the army in Honduras plans to use force to stop El Salvadorans from crossing into their country. Again, Nicolás is awoken by a dream with a message from La Virgen. She tells him not to cross the river there and to move downstream immediately. He convinces his grandfather and a few of their companions to do as she advised.
They begin walking downstream, and as the sun rises the El Salvadoran army opens fire on the people trying to cross the river, while the Honduran army shoots at them from across the river. Nicolás, Tata, and their friend Basilio Fermin are the only survivors. They wait under a rock ledge for the massacre to end. When every person is either dead or taken away by the army, they decide to walk up into the mountains and continue on until they reach a safe city. Their plan is a success, and the three of them find safety in Nicolás’s mother’s employer’s candle factory. The novel ends with an epilogue celebrating Nicolás. He has graduated medical school and is winning an award for his work as a doctor specializing in trauma.
By Sandra Benitez