Kelly Kerney’s novel Hard Red Spring tells the history of modern Guatemala through the lives of four Americans whose stories are linked by the book’s inciting incident: the mysterious disappearance in 1902 of an ex-pat little girl.
The book is divided into four time periods critical to Guatemala’s evolution: 1902, 1954, 1983, and 1999. During each of the four periods, a story is told through a different point of view: Evie, the young ex-pat girl who disappears; Dorie, the wife of the American ambassador to Guatemala during the presidency of Jacobo Arbenz and reign of United Fruit; Lenore, the wife of an evangelical pastor sent to Guatemala to serve in a model village under Efrain Rios Montt; and Jean, the adoptive mother who returns to Guatemala for a Roots Tour with her teenage daughter, Maya.
Each of these characters is an outsider in Guatemala, and much of the book’s drama revolves around the characters’ struggles to understand and navigate their outsider status. No clear villains or heroes emerge: Everyone is flawed, and in many ways, everyone is guilty—of selfishness, of pride, of good intentions gone awry–or if not guilty, not innocent, either.
I turned every page of Hard Red Spring in awe of Kelly Kerney’s ability to seamlessly weave the history of Guatemala through the epic narrative. The plot of each of the four sections is gripping and unexpected—perhaps because the history of Guatemala is both those things–and the characters are unique and memorable. At the same time, Hard Red Spring was, for me, a difficult read. Not because of the novel’s density—although at times it was dense—but because of the underlying message: That as a citizen of the United States, I am forever an interloper to Guatemala, regardless of how fervently I wish to belong.
Despite my discomfort, I wholly recommend Hard Red Spring. It’s a monumental and important novel that affected how I think, and won’t soon forget.