Lucia St. Clair Robson's latest historical novel is the thrilling Last Train from Cuernavaca, set during the Mexican Revolution. Two women become caught up in Emiliano Zapata's fight to bring land reform to the South and an end to poverty among the indigenous workers. Angela is a well-born rebel who witnesses the mass execution of workers from her family's estate by federal soldiers, and Grace is an English-born proprietor of the nicest hotel in Cuernavaca.
Robson begins the novel with a quote from Zapata, "Hitch up your pants. The road we must follow is defiance." Both Angela and Grace are defiant. They defy the roles imposed upon them by the culture in which they live, they defy the men who seek to control them, and they defy the forces of war to emerge in triumph defined on their own terms. Angela wants to fight the forces of oppression with violence and Grace wants to apply reason, but in the end, both are willing to lay everything on the line to help the "artistic, resourceful, hardworking, and faithful" people who have flourished for centuries in the lands of Cuernavaca.
The power of the historical novel is in how its readers get to experience first-hand true events from history; the magic of the historical novel occurs when we become part of the history, so drawn into the characters and landscape that it all becomes very real to us. A great historical novel, like this one, creates a rich atmosphere of time and place, so much so that when we look up from the page we wonder where we are, what century and what place? Robson's characters Grace and Angela are based on real women of the times and they come to vivid life through her words. They are flesh and bone representatives of the era they lived in, and the landscape they are placed in, Cuernavaca in the early nineteenth century, is equally alive. It is a bustling and beautiful town, a meeting point for tourists from around the world and a refined oasis for the wealthy and connected of Mexico. Yet for all its beauty, Cuernavaca is also a place of poverty and oppression, evidenced by the farmers and craftsman who come to the famed open market of the town, traveling from very far for the chance to make a little money and keep the worst of poverty at bay.
When domination of Cuernavaca becomes the goal of the rebels and is countered by a blockade of the town by the federal forces, life in Cuernavaca loses its sweetness and the town becomes a battleground between an increasingly desperate Zapata and the ruthless General Rubio, and between starvation and plenty. Angela and Grace, along with the men who revere them, Antonio and Rico, will go further than they ever thought possible in the fight to bring peace, beauty, and bounty back to the country they all love.
Robson writes with a fluidity and honesty that drew me firmly into the women's struggle for dignity and freedom, and she rendered the beauty of Cuernavaca and the surrounding countryside with such acuity that I fell in love with the place. The final scene of flight and battle had me on the edge of my seat, hoping for the safety of the heroines and the salvation of Cuernavaca. The power and the magic of the historical novel.