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Saving the World

September 1, 2008

That’s the title of the book by Julia Alvarez that I’m finishing this week.  It’s about a young woman, Isabel, who accompanies an expedition to carry the smallpox vaccine to all of Spain’s colonies at the onset of the 1800s.  Her charge is to care for the dozen or so orphans who are the carriers of the vaccine. 

I feel a strong connection with Isabel because Alvarez writes into her character much inner conflict and doubt about her own actions and decisions.  Although seemingly selfless, there are many selfish reasons why she decides to accompany the mission, and during her journey across the seas and across the Americas and Pacific islands, her faith often falters despite the strength she reveals on the outside.  Somehow, she manages to be a source of light and hope for the others on the expedition even when she has little fuel left to burn.

Near the end of the novel, Isabel responds to a colleague’s accusation that she is still living in a dream world by asserting, “No, Don Angel.  I am living in this very real, distressing world, and I am having desperately to dream in order to go on living.”  Soon after, in another passage of the same chapter, she reflects, “It was not so much that I was believing this story, as I was running as fast as I could from the doubts pursuing me.  And as I ran, I realized that I, too, was a carrier, along with my boys, carrying this story, which would surely die, unless it took hold in a future life.”

Like Isabel, and like Don Francisco, the expedition’s leader, I go on fiercely fighting for what I believe in, for peace, for compassion, “as if there were no war going on but [my] very own.”  I am often ignorant of current events because I have to believe that it’s possible to create and live in a world where there really is no other war going on.  If I live aware of every act of violence that occurs on a daily basis, I, like so many people, will lose faith in my dreams.  So I fight my own war, my war of words, of small acts of kindness, of hope, and pray that in the end, it will have been the right war to fight.

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