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The Gringa    by Andrew Altschul order for
by Andrew Altschul
Order:  USA  Can
Melville House, 2020 (2020)
Hardcover, CD, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Rheta Van Winkle

The Gringa is a young American girl, who has come to Peru to help people who are being mistreated by the government. Leonora Gelb grew up in an upper middle class family with one younger brother - a normal family in every way, with two parents who sent their children to college and expected them to turn out much like themselves. Leo, however, is presented in the beginning of this book as hating America.

'She hated its heart and its soul, its sick mind and its flabby, diseased body. She hated its dreams of itself, its fantasies about the rest of the world—paranoid, arrogant, weaponized - and she hated its waking realities: the sprawled, filth-strewn cities and prim, stingy towns, the metastatic freeways and supersized cars, the factory farms and clear-cut hills and amber waves of subsidized grain.' There's more, but because she has an idealized vision of a better world that she can somehow help to create, she goes to Peru after graduating from Stanford. She becomes involved with a revolutionary group that also hates all things American.

After she is arrested and imprisoned for being a terrorist, part of a group that's trying to overthrow the government of Peru, our narrator Andres spends ten years in Peru trying to find out who she really was and what exactly she had done. She never had renounced her love for the downtrodden, poor people of Peru, whom she said she was just trying to help. Because he never manages to meet her, Andres' picture of Leo is based on research from talking to people who knew her and examining all of the newspapers and court documents.

Loosely based, or perhaps inspired by, the true story of Lori Berenson, this fictionalized version is as much the story of the journalist, Andres as it is that of Leo. He elaborates on what he has learned from those who knew her, and goes into great details about the political situation that prompted the revolutionaries to risk their lives attempting to change them. As he tells her story, he is always, always attempting to figure out his own place in life, as well as trying to figure out what was real and what wasn't about Leo. So the book is really two novels in one.

Leo was idealistic and forced her way into a group that never accepted her. The irony is that after she was sent to prison, she was hated and disowned by the very people she wanted so badly to help. Andres tells both stories, but the book goes back and forth between his own and that of Leo, with a lot of soul-searching by both of them. The politics are frequently violent and sometimes shocking, so the story, though interesting, is not easy to read. Unfortunately, now that the world is involved in its own existential crisis, I'm not sure this book will provide the sort of entertainment that people are looking for.

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