In his new novel, Moving Serafina, Wyoming writer Bob Cherry has woven the hot-button issues of illegal immigration and water rights in the West into his compelling plot without ever losing his focus on the simple human dramas at the heart of his story. Set in the West Texas town of Solitario on the Mexican border, Moving Serafina involves an entire community of characters who each have a unique and personal stake in these political questions. At the center of the action stands Clayton Elliott, an aging rancher who, as the book opens, has recently lost his wife Adelita to cancer.
To pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills, Clayton has been forced to sell his ranch to developers who plan to exploit the aquifer buried beneath his property, “in order to pipe the water two hundred miles northwest to an expanding and thirsty El Paso and beyond.” He plans to move the casket of his three-year-old daughter, Serafina, whom he buried at his ranch twenty-five years earlier, next to where Adelita is buried in town. In the contract he signs with the developers, he stipulates that they cannot begin drilling until after Serafina is moved or May fifteenth, whichever comes first, which gives the book a ticking clock of about two week’s time.
When Clayton approaches a couple of old friends for help with moving Serafina’s casket, they balk at the developers’ plan for the aquifer, and rather than help Clay, the men, who sit on the town council, set about establishing a water board for Solitario, which will delay the company’s plans.
Meanwhile, during his visit to Serafina’s grave on her birthday, Clay discovers a young Mexican woman who has been hiding out in his unoccupied house. The woman, named Perfidia, is battered with blood-caked, bare feet, and eventually tells him that she’d been beaten up by the coyotes she hired to lead her across the border and that they kidnapped her baby, a claim that is backed up by Perfidia’s leaking breast milk. (Moving Serafina includes more frank and accurate discussions of the rudiments of breastfeeding than I can recall reading in any recent novel.)
Clay puts his plans to move Serafina aside in order to focus on helping Perfidia, and he’s joined in the search for her baby by the woman who runs the town’s hotel, her cook, and the town’s deputy sheriff, as well as a few other friends. None of them wants to be involved in hiding an illegal immigrant, but they all are drawn to help the traumatized woman, and don’t want to see her deported without her baby.
The plot of Moving Serafina is elegant and involving, with lots of rotating gears that manage to all fit into place by the end. The strongest element throughout the novel is the portrait of Clay’s grief, his anguish over his lost child still fresh decades later, now compounded with the recent death of his wife. He visits Serafina’s grave regularly and speaks to her as though she were alive. His memories of his failures on the day Serafina became ill are haunting and beautifully written:
“Behind his closed eyes, Clay sees Adelita sitting next to the wash basin in the kitchen, Serafina draped across her lap. The child is limp and listless and Adelita mops her forehead with cool water, squeezes the rag dry, dips it again into the last of the water Clay has brought from the windmill. ‘She is so hot,’ Adelita says and she smiles, unconvincingly. ‘But she played so hard in the sun today.'”
The characters’ beliefs about illegal immigrants don’t break down along expected lines–Cherry has given each of his characters nuanced viewpoints. For example, the hotel cook, Bea Hernandez, is initially opposed to helping Perfidia, in part because she’s tired of people assuming she’s an immigrant due to her Mexican heritage, even though three generations of her family have lived in Texas. And the deputy willingly helps search for Perfidia’s baby, in part because he doesn’t have any jurisdiction over the federal matter of an illegal immigrant.
There are places in Moving Serafina where the writing could have been tighter, especially in the beginning, when each successive character is let in on the details of Clay’s contract with the developers and the particulars of Perfidia’s plight, repeating facts in dialogue that the reader has already learned several times rather than jumping ahead to the next fresh reaction. But Moving Serafina builds in momentum, and toward the end Cherry even manages to eke maximum drama out of some scenes that could have been downright boring, including a town meeting and some discussions of the procedural regulations involved in setting up a water board.
Moving Serafina does a remarkable job of showing how the particulars of each person’s history–who they’ve married, where they were born, where they own land, who their friends are–shape their political views, and how easily views that people think are ironclad can be set aside when they are moved to act in the behalf of another human being.