Wednesday, July 8, 2009

I, Juan de Pareja

I think that the best parts of I, Juan de Pareja are embodied by the very first sentence of the book:
I, Juan de Pareja, was born into slavery early in the seventeenth century.
Juan's story is also that of his master, the painter Diego Velázquez, and a rambling exploration of art, Christianity, slavery, and Spain in the mid-1600's.

Although I like historical fiction, I'm afraid I was often bored by Juan de Pareja's narrative, and I frequently wondered just how probable the story was. Several other Newbery medalists have taken famous people and made stories out of their lives - sometimes basing their books on very little evidence or historical research. I think that the worst of these stories - Amos Fortune and Daniel Boone - are the least deserving of all the Newbery winners, and should be shelved in the fiction section (if the library bothers to keep them at all) instead in 921 with the other biographies in my local library.

Island of the Blue Dolphins
and Carry On, Mr. Bowditch are better stories (and both are also shelved in fiction, along with I, Juan de Pareja), but I still wonder about how much in these books is based on accurate history, or how much the author really got right when it comes to the characters and how they think. (I haven't read Invincible Louisa yet, so I don't know how the Newbery winning biography of Louisa May Alcott stacks up.)

Elizabeth Borton de Trevino actually notes that very little is known about de Pareja and Velázquez in her afterword, which I appreciated. But what about her portrayal of 17th century Spain, King Philip IV and his court, or the life of a Black slave there? Would Juan de Parejo really have worried that painting in secret was a sin? Was he really so happy as a humble, unpaid servant? I'm not an expert on the time and place, but the story just seems shallow somehow, especially when I compare it to other historical fiction (for adults, granted) like Geraldine Brooks' People of the Book, for instance.

Also, the style of Borton de Trevino's writing grated on me sometimes, and I thought the sentiments expressed were often rather trite:
The months went by, and at first I thought every day of Miri. But Time is a great traitor who teaches us to accept loss. I was young, and young hearts cannot always be sad (p. 76).
I did enjoy the way that Borton de Trevino put things at other times. When she describes Juan de Pareja's first trip to Italy with Diego Velázquez, her description of food and shopping is rather interesting and fresh:
I often went into the inn kitchen to cook for Master because he was used to a diet of meat and bread, whereas the Italians ate paste dressed with various spicy sauces, and very little meat. And when Master felt well enough to go about looking at art works, visiting galleries and shops, and pricing and bargaining, I went with him, carrying his sketchbook, his clean handkerchief, and his money, which I wore in a sash bound tightly around my waist (p. 85).
I guess I just expected more, somehow. It certainly appears that lots of other people love this book, and especially like Borton de Trevino's (you can't really say they're Velázquez's!) thoughts about art and beauty. It wasn't enough for me, though I did enjoy Googling Velázquez's paintings (especially his portrait of Juan de Pareja) and paintings by Juan de Pareja himself.