“Book Review: Marcela’s Army”
Reviewed by Samantha Hui
A profound yet gentle novel that addresses childhood trauma with honesty and care
This small-town story lovingly intertwines the lives and relationships of all those who inhabit it. Though Marcela’s Army is anchored in the lives of the owner of Comfrey’s only restaurant and the two children she cares for, nearly all the characters take center stage, highlighting themes of community, trauma, and acceptance. Readers enter as strangers into this small town and become invested in its intricacies as they hear whispers of the quiet secrets of Comfrey denizens.
“Survival for a human was so much more than food, shelter, and a nesting place. Survival for [Marcela’s] family relied on subterfuge.”
Amadeus and Marcela Crow are two delightfully mischievous and intelligent twins who have captured the hearts of the citizens of Comfrey. Having suffered through the childhood trauma of unstable parental figures and the loss of their mother, these children may have a chance to finally live and act like children now that they are under the care of Heidi, the beautiful and pleasant German immigrant who owns the local restaurant.
However, small-town life and its small-town values prove to be a scourge to the twins’ suffering. Amadeus, Marcela, and Heidi have a secret to hide: Marcela is “a girl trapped in a body identical to her brother’s.” Her authentic self demands to be free and be in the body of a girl. At only seven years old, Amadeus and Marcela must bear the weight of keeping this secret from potentially reactionary and bigoted townspeople.
“‘All God’s creatures suffer,’ Betty Ann had said. ‘But suffering is not a reason to stop loving life. Bad times are followed by good.’”
The Crow twins are not the only people in Comfrey who have secrets or who are rebuilding lives that were once steeped in trauma. The novel opens in on Vera McNabb, concerning how she was mute for an extended period of time as a child after having witnessed her parents and sibling die in a house fire. With the generosity and love other characters offered Vera, she eventually gains the courage to speak again.
But when Vera is physically and emotionally harmed in adulthood, it takes a resilient and insightful young Marcela to help Vera regain her strength and confidence. Vera is only one of the many people in Comfrey who holds their cards close to the chest but needs unquestioning help from their neighbors.
“They have their own secrets, we respect each other’s privacy. […] Neighbors who respect your privacy, yet make you chicken soup, are not so common.”
The narrative structure of the novel is initially disorienting as it jumps from character to character without always giving context for their importance to the story or their relationship with each other. However, over the course of the novel, it’s this style that shines. We learn about the individuals of Comfrey at the same time as the other characters do. The plot moves in waves, ebbing and flowing with the strong stories of its characters: some with brief descriptions, some with short-lived backstories, and some with overarching storylines. Each story blends seamlessly into the next and is absolutely essential by the end.
Marcela’s Army is a story that any reader can fall into, even without having read the first book in the series. Though the novel deals with traumatic and troubling experiences, it lingers on the love that is necessary to continue on. The characters all hold at least one secret or a past they may not be proud of, but their true wants and needs are transparent and taken care of by those who generously will not pry. I recommend this book to any reader who needs to be loved in spite of their secrets.
Publisher: Atmosphere Press
Genre: Literature & Fiction / Adoption
Print Length: 346 pages
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