The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao Book 2, Chapter 5 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The Famous Doctor. Yunior takes over the narration again, offering yet another possible start to the sad tale of Oscar Wao with Oscar’s maternal grandfather Abelard Cabral. A footnote explains that this is the beginning that the de Leóns always use for themselves, even though several more beginnings (going as far back as the Spanish “discovery” of America) are possible.
This is the third possible place to start the story of Oscar Wao, as Díaz again comments on the arbitrary nature of telling history. At some point, the author of the history has to make a choice where to begin, or else just keep going back to the beginning of time. Yunior argues for a longer view of history that includes the Spanish arrival, to give the de León story more context.
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Abelard was a surgeon and his family was very well-to-do, living in a mansion called Casa Hatüey and enjoying the luxury of an elite social standing in the DR. Abelard’s two daughters, Astrid and Jacquelyn, enjoy the summer at their ranch house on the beach, but Abelard’s wife must avoid getting a tan at all costs because her skin is already so dark.
The past wealth of the Cabrals stands in stark contrast to the poverty that most of the other characters live in, especially Beli, who should have inherited everything. But this wealth does come with a cost. Unlike Beli, who embraces her dark skin, her mother must go to great lengths to deny her naturally dark coloring.
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Abelard’s reputation as a scholar, and his interests in studying languages, rare books, and inventions, mark him as eccentric in Dominican society. He encourages his daughters to study and holds evenings of discussion and debate in his parlor, despite the danger in appearing revolutionary during the reign of Trujillo. A footnote explains that Abelard was skilled at keeping his head down to stay out of trouble, never speaking out against any of Trujillo’s atrocities and quietly helping stitch up machete victims without ever asking how these men were injured. Abelard fakes enthusiasm for Trujillo when he must and tries to stay out of his way as much as possible. Another footnote laments that Abelard could not stay away from Balaguer, Trujillo’s right hand man, who always wanted to discuss theories of German racial eugenics and asked for Abelard’s medical perspective.
Abelard’s status as a scholar marks him as a particular target for the Trujillo regime. Recalling Yunior’s previous argument about the natural animosity between writers and dictators, the novel has set Abelard up to get in trouble for his writings. Yet at least at first, it seems as though Abelard has chosen not to come into conflict with Trujillo. Abelard simply wants to keep his family safe – an even harder task for the members of his family that have darker skin, as the reference to German racial eugenics reminds us. Abelard’s cautiousness reads as cowardice at some points, especially when compared to the stubborn bravery of Beli or Oscar.
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Unfortunately for Abelard, his oldest daughter Jacquelyn blossoms into a beauty who might dangerously capture Trujillo’s attention. According to Yunior, one of Trujillo’s most “Dominican” qualities was that he believed all beautiful women on the island belonged to him to do with as he pleased. Abelard reacts “bravely” by not immediately handing Jacquelyn over to Trujillo, but instead locks her in the house. Trujillo’s spies make it unlikely that Jacquelyn will remain unfound, but Abelard remains hopeful.
Like Beli, Jacquelyn is lauded as a great beauty. This is partially due to the fact that many of these women are related, and naturally look similar, but it also seems to be a particular focus for Yunior throughout the novel. He may embellish the beauty of some of these women for his own pleasure. However, beauty in the Dominican Republic is a risk rather than an asset under Trujillo. Jacquelyn’s beauty raises the stakes for Abelard.
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Jacquelyn (Jackie) knows none of the danger she is in and blissfully studies French with her father and their Haitian servant. Yunior compares the Cabral women to Hobbits, blissfully unaware of Sauron. Jackie starts each morning by writing out “Tarde venientibus ossa” (To the latecomers are left the bones).
Despite the fact that Abelard does not stand up to Trujillo, other details expose him as a progressive man. He allows his daughters free reign to study, which was rare for the gender roles of Dominican women at the time, and has a Haitian servant during a time when Haitians were almost universally despised and deported from the DR. Jackie’s slogan as she studies reminds her not to slack in her work, but will later come back with more chilling repercussions.
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Abelard shares his worries for their daughter with three people. First, he tells his wife, Socorro, who is both an incredible beauty and an intelligent nurse capable of helping Abelard with surgery. Socorro ignores the fact that Trujillo may be a problem, but keeps Jacquelyn out of sight anyway. Abelard also tells his mistress, Lydia Abenader, a woman who had previously rejected Abelard’s offer of marriage but sleeps with him now that she is a widow. Finally, Abelard accidentally tells his neighbor Marcus Applegate Román, one night as they are driving home together from a presidential event. It is dangerous to tell Marcus, as no one in these times can be trusted not to go to the Secret Police with news of treason, but Marcus just tells Abelard to have uglier daughters. Lydia tells Abelard to send his daughter to Cuba, but Abelard is too scared to take any course of action.
Abelard’s wife’s name Socorro means “help” in Spanish, another sign that the Cabral family is headed for disaster. Abelard’s companions show the range of possible responses to Trujillo’s regime in general. Socorro ignores any sign of disturbance, Lydia tries to escape completely, and Marcus tries to play nice with Trujillo in order to be safe. Though Abelard may be more progressive than most Dominican men, Yunior treats the fact that Abelard has a mistress as a matter of course rather than a betrayal of his marriage or a sign of sexist double standards.
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A year passes, and Abelard attends another event in honor of the president. Trujillo stops him, joking that he might become a maricón (gay man) if he doesn’t bring his wife to these events. Abelard is terrified already, but Trujillo goes further, asking if the rumors of Abelard’s beautiful daughter are true. Abelard thinks quickly and responds that his daughter is only beautiful if women with mustaches are considered attractive. Luckily, Trujillo laughs instead of accusing Abelard of treason. When Abelard gets home, his wife thanks God for the inspiration, but Abelard is not so sure where the impulse to lie came from.
Like Hitler’s Germany, Trujillo’s Dominican Republic also persecuted homosexual or non-gender conforming people. Trujiillo’s hyper-masculinity also leads Abelard to lie about his daughter’s appearance, giving her a masculine trait that Trujillo will dislike. Just like Beli later questioned what force saved her in the cane field, Abelard too is not so sure that God is in control of all of these events.
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And So? For three months, Abelard waits for Trujillo to ask about his family again. The worry affects his health, his job, his family life, and his sex life with his mistress. Another month passes and Abelard lets himself think they may be safe.
Trujillo, like the fukú, sometimes strikes quickly and sometimes waits to destroy people. Abelard is lulled into a false sense of security, but Yunior makes it clear that he isn’t truly safe.
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Santo Domingo Confidential. Yunior compares living in Santo Domingo during Trujillo’s regime to a “Twilight Zone” episode. Each citizen must pretend that every action the president makes is good, no matter how terrible he becomes. His spy network, control over his people, and ability to isolate his country from the rest of the world—which Yunior calls the “Plátano Curtain” (plátano means banana or plantain)—were practically unparalleled. A footnote shares an anecdote about a graduate student who, on an exam, reduced all of world history to the Dominican Republic during the era of Trujillo, yet passed the exam simply because he had mentioned Trujillo. Yunior also explains the culture of secrecy among Dominicans during this age, because it was impossible to tell if anyone was a member of the Secret Police and ready to throw their neighbors into state prison for treason on a whim. All of this power is attributed to Trujillo’s evil deal with fukú.
With his Twilight Zone reference, Yunior specifically compares the Dominican Republic to Peaksville, a mythical town controlled by a sociopathic boy who can control people with his mind. Trujillo thus comes even closer to a science-fiction or supernatural villain. The Plátano curtain plays on the Iron Curtain that separated the Soviet Union from the rest of the world, underscoring the fascist regime that Trujillo has created. Trujillo is especially interested in stunting free thought in school, as that is where revolution has the best chance of gaining speed. The knowledge that everyone could be a threat keeps people who might otherwise have resisted Trujillo in check.
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Despite the intense fear that Trujillo inspired, Yunior reminds us that there were people who resisted. Abelard, however, has no designs for revolution and simply wants to tend his patients and care for his family in peace. Whenever anyone begins talking about atrocities Trujillo is committing, Abelard politely changes the subject. Abelard predicts that they all just have to stay out of trouble for a couple decades, wait for Trujillo to die, and then help the DR become a true democracy. Yunior informs us that all of these predictions will be false, as Abelard’s luck swiftly changes.
Abelard, though arguably a good man, is conspicuously not a hero. He does nothing to save anyone outside of his family or estate, and indeed usually chooses not to act at all. This wait-and-see attitude will play a role in the family’s destruction, but it is also a very real and common human response to tragedy.
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The Bad Thing. In 1945, everything seems to be going well for Abelard. His daughter Jacquelyn is set to leave for a boarding school in Le Havre, France, the next year and will soon be safe from Trujillo’s attention. Yet that February, Abelard receives an invitation to a Presidential Event that specifically calls for his wife and oldest daughter to come as well. He rants and raves to Marcus and Lydia, but keeps it a secret from his wife to avoid causing her panic. Marcus fatalistically advises Abelard to let Trujillo have Jacquelyn, while Lydia blames Abelard for not sending Jacquelyn away when he had the chance. Instead of smuggling his family away now, Abelard waits and worries more.
1945, not the best year for most of the world as World War II continues to drag on, is actually a good time for Abelard. Significantly, Jacquelyn moving to France, a country reeling from Nazi occupation at this time, would actually be an improvement of her situation – showing how truly bad Trujillo’s Dominican Republic is, and Jacquelyn’s position in particular. Abelard chooses to keep another secret, this time from his wife, rather than trusting her to help him rescue their daughter.
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Abelard starts drinking to cope with the stress of Trujillo’s invitation. Yunior speculates that other Latin American revolutionaries might have overthrown Trujillo then and there, but that Abelard was not that kind of man. Yunior repeats Jacquelyn’s motto: Tarde venientibus ossa (to the latecomers are left the bones). Abelard eventually convinces himself that Trujillo is only testing his loyalty and that everything will be fine if he tells his family nothing and they all just go to the party. Jacquelyn is incredibly excited, but Socorro starts having terrible dreams of a man with no face.
Abelard’s signature inaction continues, and this time Jacquelyn’s motto has a darker undertone, warning Abelard that he may wait too long with life or death stakes. It is clear that Yunior wants Abelard to be the revolutionary Yunior himself would have (he assumes) been if he had been alive in that time. Socorro’s no-face man dreams show that fukú definitely has a hand in this party invitation.
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Two days before Trujillo’s party, Lydia tries to convince Abelard to leave with her for Cuba, but he refuses to leave his family. The night of the party, Abelard has an epiphany as he brings the car around and sees his daughter through the window, finally realizing that he can’t deliver his daughter into Trujillo’s reach. He leaves for the party without his wife and daughter. Marcus silently shakes his head as they drive there. As they go through the receiving line, Trujillo asks Abelard why Jacquelyn is not there. Abelard simply says she could not attend, and Trujillo dismisses him. No one at the party will look at him afterwards.
While Abelard may be too much of a coward to stand up to Trujillo, he at least has enough courage to stay with his family and face whatever is to come. He finally makes the brave but dangerous choice to go to Trujillo alone. Marcus has become noticeably less supportive of Abelard’s choices, though Abelard is too focused on Trujillo’s reaction to see it. Now that Abelard has fallen out of favor with Trujillo, no one wants to associate with him for fear that they will be the next target.
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Chiste Apocalyptus (Apocalyptic Gossip). A month after the party, the Secret Police arrest Abelard for slander. The story is that Abelard had drinks with some friends a few days after the party, and then asked them to help him move a chest of drawers he had bought for his wife from the roof of his Packard to the trunk. When they opened the trunk, Abelard allegedly made a joke saying, “No bodies here, Trujillo must have cleaned them out for me.”
Abelard is arrested for slander, a crime impossible to actually prove without any sort of recording of the conversation. Abelard’s “joke,” though certainly out of character, is actually very applicable to Trujillo. In the early days of Trujillo’s rise to power, he and his men drove Packard cars across the island with the bodies of “hurricane victims” (really enemies of Trujillo) in the trunks.
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In My Humble Opinion. Yunior interjects to say that he thinks this story is completely false, but that it still cost Abelard his life.
Whether Abelard made the joke or not doesn’t actually matter because Trujillo himself gets to decide what is true and what is false in his country.
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The Fall. Abelard spends the night after the (supposed) trunk incident with Lydia, comforting her after she mistakenly thought she was pregnant. Lydia continues to try to convince Abelard to run away with her, but Abelard will never leave his daughters or his safe, predictable life. Yet two weeks later (and two weeks after the US bombed Japan, as Yunior informs us), Socorro dreams of the man with no face standing over her husband, and the next night she sees him standing over their children.
Abelard’s fall, just like Beli’s and Oscar’s, leans on the Biblical “Fall of Man” from the Garden of Eden (paradise) into sin. As with Beli’s beating, Oscar’s suicide attempt from the train bridge, and now Abelard’s arrest, the Fall represents the moment that fukú took full control of their lives. Yunior reminds us that the outside world is now celebrating the end of WW II, again giving an opposite tone to Abelard’s utter desolation.
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Abelard in Chains. The Secret Police arrest Abelard, refusing to even let him leave a note for his wife and family. At first, the Secret Police (who Yunior calls “SIMians,” despite admitting that this nickname doesn’t actually fit the time period) are polite to Abelard, assuring him that there has been a small misunderstanding that will soon be cleared away. Abelard tries to remain calm, but cannot as he imagines his family taken and raped, and his house burned to the ground.
SIMians, a moniker that Yunior uses to mock the Secret Police by calling them monkeys (simians), comes from the acronym Servicio de Inteligencia Militar (Military Intelligence Service). Yunior admits that the acronym wasn’t actually in use at the time of Abelard’s arrest, but it seems that Yunior likes the joke so much that he puts it into Abelard’s story anyway. Abelard knows that the Secret Police are lying about the benign nature of their visit, as very few people detained by members of the Secret Police ever returned.
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The Secret Police take Abelard to the Forteleza San Luis, a notorious prison in Trujillo’s regime. The officers take all of Abelard’s possessions and force him to fill out forms in an office. When Abelard tries to complain about how he has been treated, the guard punches him the mouth. When Abelard asks, “Why?” the guard punches him again in the forehead. Abelard begins to cry, and is taken to a general holding cell. The other prisoners harass him for being a gay communist, stealing his clothes and forcing him to sit near the bathroom corner of the cell. They also steal his food for three days, finally allowing him a banana on the fourth. On the fourth day, the guards take him out of the cell, ignoring all of his questions and declarations of good family reputation, and torture him with an electrical machine called the “pulpo” (octopus).
Forteleza San Luis was a key site in the War of Restoration (1863-1865) as the DR sought to regain independence from Spain, but it is ironically now used to imprison Dominican citizens. Abelard never imagined that he would be in the prison, much less subject to violence, and reacts with shock and sadness when the guards abuse him. Unfortunately, this sensitivity to violence reads as weakness to the other prisoners, and earn Abelard the contempt of both the guards and his fellow detainees. Yunior hammers home the brutality of Trujillo’s government, as Abelard is tortured for no reason at all.
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A week later, Socorro finally finds out where Abelard is being held and receives permission to see him. She waits in a latrine room, an intentional humiliation that she bears stoically, and waits to see Abelard. He looks horrific when they bring him out, covered in wounds from the guards and the other prisoners. Socorro, already an anxious woman due to her hard childhood, tries to comfort Abelard as best she can. After the visit, Socorro realizes she is pregnant with their third and final daughter. Yunior asks whether this is a sign of fukú (curse) or zafa (blessing).
Socorro, like La Inca, shows strength in the face of great pain. Dominican women in general bear injustice in silence in the book. Socorro’s pregnancy is the worst possible news for her, as she doesn’t want to bring another child into such a harsh world (subject to fukú), even though children are supposed to be the ultimate blessing (zafa). The fact that it will be another daughter, and thus another potential victim of Trujillo, and unable to carry on Abelard’s family name, is even worse.
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Many people speculate whether Abelard actually said anything treasonous about Trujillo. La Inca insists that Abelard did nothing wrong, and was simply framed by enemies of the family, while others say that he probably said something in a moment of drunken stupidity. Still others say that Trujillo put a fukú on the whole family when Abelard denied access to his daughter, causing the whole mess. Yunior remains agnostic, telling us to decide for ourselves what to believe because there are no official memoirs from Trujillo to ask for documentation. However, Yunior does say that the story about keeping a daughter away from Trujillo is too common on the island (and a footnote explains the origin of the myth: an Indian woman named Anacaona who refused to sleep with a Spaniard and brought destruction on herself and her people), and that it too easily explains all the misfortune.
Again, there are many possible explanations for the events of the novel, some supernatural and some not. Yunior always leaves it up to the reader to decide, emphasizing the audience’s responsibility to examine the truth of everything they read (including Yunior’s narrative itself). Trujillo’s lack of documentation (another example of “blank pages”), further confuses truth and lies, leaving only each person’s interpretation and memory. Yunior also introduces the original Dominican myth, suggesting that Abelard’s story might have been based on the legend of Anacaona, the same way that Beli based her life on romance movies and Oscar based his on fantasy novels instead of facing reality.
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The last possible reason for Abelard’s curse alleges that he wrote a book exposing the supernatural roots of Trujillo’s rise to power. This angered Trujillo enough to arrest Abelard and destroy every book he ever wrote or owned. Yunior explains that this version of Abelard’s fall was Oscar’s personal favorite, as it is closest to the fantasy books that Oscar loved. Yunior also thinks it is strange that Trujillo never went after Jacquelyn, even when Abelard was in prison, and that not a single example of Abelard’s handwriting remains.
Here, Abelard’s occupation as a writer finally comes into conflict with the dictator. The book he allegedly wrote was completely destroyed, just as Oscar’s last writings will also be lost. Yunior does not explicitly support this theory, but he does provide reasons not to trust the other theories, suggesting that the book is the most likely (or at least most interesting) option to Yunior. This makes sense, as Yunior was also a writer who likely wants to believe in the power of a book to change the world.
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The Sentence. No matter why Abelard was sent to prison, he was sentenced to 18 years in February 1946. All of Abelard’s possession are distributed to Trujillo’s minions, including to Marcus – as Yunior reveals that Marcus was one of the men who helped accuse Abelard of slander, even through Abelard considered Marcus his best friend. From then on, the curse left no one in the Cabral family line alone.
The sentence literally refers to Abelard’s prison sentence, but it also extends to how the rest of the Cabral family was “sentenced” to deal with a horrible curse of the rest of their lives. Marcus finally shows his true colors, willing to betray Abelard if it means keeping himself safe.
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Fallout. The first sign of the curse was the birth of Abelard’s third daughter, who was born with pitch-black skin. Socorro committed suicide two months after Beli was born, and the three Cabral daughters were sent away to relatives. Lydia, Abelard’s mistress, died of either grief or cancer soon after. In 1948, Jacquelyn was found dead in her godparents’ pool, having allegedly drowned herself, and her younger sister Astrid was shot in the head in a church in 1951. Abelard actually lived the longest (except for Beli), languishing in a Dominican death camp for 14 years before he died. Yunior refuses to tell us more of Abelard’s experiences, to spare us the pain. Abelard was left brain-dead by a torture called “La Corona,” (the crown) and he died a few days before Trujillo was assassinated.
Just like nuclear fallout, the true extent of the damage to Abelard’s life is unknown until much later. Beli’s dark skin is “cursed” because elite families in the DR are supposed to be white—the result of a century of internalized racism after the Spanish invasion of the naturally darker native Taino peoples who originally lived on the island, as well as anti-Haitian racism intensified during Trujillo’s regime. No one in Abelard’s inner circle survives the fallout from his bad luck.
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The Third and Final Daughter. Yunior now circles back to Beli’s fate in all of this madness. Beli was left with a wet-nurse after everyone in the family refused to take a child with such dark skin. When Beli is four months old, Socorro’s relatives come back to claim the baby, then pass her off to other relatives when they realize that all the Cabral fortune has vanished. Beli is then sold to another family in the poorest neighborhood of Santo Domingo as a “criada,” a workhorse maid. Yunior tells in a footnote of a criada he knew when he was little, who did all the housework and was not allowed to attend school. Beli, lost and unaware of who her family is, disappears.
In many fantasy novels, three is a significant number, and the third child is destined for greatness. Yunior highlights this trope with Beli. He sets up Beli to be a Dominican Cinderella, separated from her “royal” family and forced to work as a maid, but destined to eventually find her true place in the world. Yet Beli’s fate, already told in Chapter 3, is also to be destroyed by the fukú, and she certainly doesn’t live “happily ever after.”
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The Burning. In 1955, La Inca hears rumors that the last Cabral daughter is still alive. La Inca was too grief-stricken from the death of her own husband to care for Jacquelyn or Astrid when their mother died, but she has since recovered and opened up a string of bakeries in Baní. The rumor says that this last Cabral daughter was a maid for a family who didn’t want her to attend school, and that her “parents” burned her back with hot oil when she continued to skip work to go to class.
La Inca’s loss of her husband is another example of how love always invites the opportunity for grief. However, this death happens before the events of the novel and is specifically not part of the curse on the family, as Yunior distinguishes between regular tragedy and fukú. In contrast, Beli’s hardships are completely attributed to the curse. Beli’s desire to go to school seems odd, considering how little she cared about her studies at El Redentor, but it does fit with her desire to always be somewhere other than where she is.
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Yunior describes Outer Azua, the neighborhood that Beli now lives in, as the biggest wasteland and the poorest neighborhood in all of the Dominican Republic. La Inca knows she has to rescue this child if she really is the last Cabral, and goes to check out the rumors. La Inca sees Beli’s eyes and knows immediately that Beli is a Cabral. She returns with Beli and begins to raise her, making sure that Beli knows everything about her family’s elite roots.
La Inca’s familial connection to Beli, though they are not closely related, is very strong. Yunior emphasizes the bond between the two women, as La Inca recognizes Beli on sight, and ties Beli back into her family heritage.
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Forget-Me-Naut. Beli never speaks of the nine years she spent in Outer Azua, preferring to start anew in Baní. Yunior suspects that she never thought about that life at all, embracing the “amnesia” of the island in order to recreate herself.
Beli censors herself, leaving blank pages in her own history. The “naut” of the title “forget-me-naut” evokes the Greek myth of the Argonauts, as Beli is also on a mission to redefine herself away from the island she was born on.
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Sanctuary. La Inca becomes the mother that Beli never had, and makes sure she gets a proper education and comports herself with behavior fit for the family she once belonged to. La Inca never asks about Beli’s life in Outer Azua, speaking instead of the pride of Beli’s ancestors and her real parents. Beli flourishes in this sanctuary, even relishing the small rural school she attends. Beli never knows what Trujillo did to her family and, at this point, she has no idea what is in store for her own life.
La Inca helps Beli keep the “blank pages” of her past instead of forcing her to deal with the grief that overwhelmed her young life. This discretion perhaps leaves Beli open to the manipulation she later faces at the hands of Trujillo’s sister.
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