Jeanne Koré Salvato

The last novel in our series of seven, The Five Wounds, by Kirstin Valdez Quade, features an unusual background. The Penitentes, male Catholic brotherhoods who re-enacted the crucifixion, flourished in secret up through the mid 20th century in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. The brotherhood rites included novitiates who were sponsored by members within the community, a Mayor who was in charge, and rites which included prayer, saying the rosary, fasting and reflection upon the life of Jesus during Lent. In addition, flagellation and the carrying of an actual rough-hewn cross occurred, and the man chosen to reenact the suffering of Jesus was actually hoisted up upon it on Good Friday.  

Los Penitentes during Holy Week

The Five Wounds
begins with Amadeo, an unemployed, lost soul of a son, having been chosen to play the role of Jesus in one of the Hermanos Penitentes, a brotherhood of penitents. It is a stretch for Amadeo, a last chance perhaps, to rescue him from himself, from the bottle, and from his recurrent failures as a partner, a son and a father.  When Amadeo comes home from the preparations with los hermanos necessary to celebrate Holy Week, his daughter Angel is sitting on the steps of the house, eight months pregnant.  She has not called ahead from her mother’s house, but she is moving in.  Neither has she notified the baby’s father of the situation, the baby conceived in a half-hearted fling with a nerdy boy, more out of adolescent rebellion than genuine passion.

Thus begins Amadeo’s predicament.  He is settled in the complacency of his mother’s house, beneficiary of her credit card and the many beers he purchases with it, and yet he has a flicker of desire to make something of himself.  Will he step up to the plate?  The short answer is yes, as he slowly, fitfully develops the capacity to be present to his daughter and grandson, and even ultimately his mother, who will die in the course of the story from a terminal illness.

Angel, estranged from her mother, enrolls in a school reserved for unwed teenage girls, where they are taught proper neo-natal care as well as being tutored in the subjects they will need to know for their high school equivalency exam, the GED. This school features nuanced relationships between Angel and the other girls and their teacher Brianna.

Teen moms

There are two worlds which Quade develops beautifully, the world of Angel and her immediate family and then the world at the school.  The teenage girls are differentiated well, and their struggles and lack of awareness and vulnerability are piercing.  Amedeo’s trajectory is not straightforward, but he continually tries to pull himself together after many times slipping and sliding.  Likewise, there are setbacks among the teen mothers. There are setbacks in Angel’s relationship with both of her parents. 

The trajectory to me seemed to be set from the beginning.  A redemption story. Everyone is struggling, lurching forward, and then arriving. There is nothing wrong with this per se, but I like a novel with more surprise, more invention, especially since the beginning of the novel with the hermanos is so striking.  I felt sorry that this beginning was rushed.  I also wondered if all these varieties of suffering needed to be present:  drugs, domestic violence, abandonment, same sex sex, unwanted pregnancy, mother daughter issues, father daughter issues, inappropriate sexual hook ups between the teacher, Brianna, and Angel’s dad.  The impact of the young teacher’s failure to help one of the teen mothers was very good, though, with the resulting fall-out because of the teacher’s inexperience and willful blindness.  Only Yolanda, the loving mother of Amadeo and grandmother of Angel, was a responsible person in this story, and yet the others at least made progress, I guess, but the bar was so low to start with.

A bunch of losers (It can happen to anyone.)

Here’s a critic from Goodreads:
“This young man believes that he can redeem himself in the eyes of his community by this public act of piety and self-mortification. By the end, he comes to recognize that redemption does not come from enduring punishment but by carrying the burdens of others in love. He finally realizes that we are invited to embrace what Christ felt on the cross, but this is not the physical agony, but the love that brought him there. Other characters will draw similar conclusions as they learn to accept the flaws in themselves and each other, to put others first, to love unconditionally despite the pain. There is a great deal of swearing and sex which is supposed to give this novel an edge, but that was only a thin veneer. This is a sweet story with an ending that could cause tooth decay. The writing is good. The characters grow. But I found the presentation a bit heavy handed.”

Comments from One of our Own Readers:
The Five Wounds felt real in the complexity of family relations. Does it play too much on the stereotypes of small town America? Maybe. But I liked how the author got us inside the heads of each character to better understand their motivations and mainly good intentions even if misguided. 

“It could have been sad, even hopeless, given each person’s situation but each has some belief or idea of becoming better versions of themselves.  Amadeo takes sincere pride in playing Jesus and thinks that self-inflicting wounds make him more authentic, closer to forgiveness for his drinking and lazy life. Yolanda tries to hold it together and cannot let down her guard to tell her family she is dying. Angel is desperate to find a role model for a new path forward. Brianna is “a good person.” She tries!  She is a beacon for Angel. But she is quick to judge and disdains some of her students.

“In all, I found the characters quite believable and completely human.”

Beckett is credited with the phrase, “fail better.”  He holds on here to the shadow side of success, namely failure, but in a way that reveals progress.  Beckett avoids the binary trap, the either / or fallacy, pitting success against failure.  Much and many have failed in The Five Wounds:  the town itself a backwater, the inhabitants barely making it by, and while there’s a hopeful end, I think it mostly fits in the category of fail better.  I almost prefer the failings, if we could put it that way, of our vagabonds, who don’t have a safety net, no family of the feckless father to swoop in and offer gifts and sustained monetary payment.  Waiting for Godot is the art of failure without a net. 

No Net for the Vagabonds (Janet Echelman)
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