Midnight Cactusby Bella Pollen
“Seductive and disturbing ” Alice Coleman is an entertaining heroine.” ––Ann Cummins, San Francisco Chronicle
The new novel from the best-selling author of Hunting Unicorns is a stirring and suspenseful tale of love and the quest for freedom, vividly set in the wild lands between Arizona and the Mexican border.
Bella Pollen, a best-selling British author who lives part-time in the American Southwest, is the author of Hunting Unicorns, which was a smash success in the UK, where it was selected as a Best Summer Read by the Richard and Judy Show (the Oprah of England). In that novel she took an American journalist to London with romantic and comedic results. In her new book, Pollen places a British mother of two in a tiny abandoned mining town on the Mexican border of Arizona and spins a romantic and dangerous story about betrayal and freedom against the backdrop of immigration politics.
Needing a respite from her claustrophobic marriage in London, Alice Coleman moves her two small children to the Arizona desert with the intention of renovating the abandoned village her husband acquired in a failed business scheme–and there escapes to a solitude she craves and hadn’t thought possible.
But the vast and unruly Southwest has room for the dreams of more than one fugitive. In this dusty, alien atmosphere everyone has something to hide–from Benjamin, the town’s Mexican caretaker, to the immigrants who risk their lives to cross the border, to the laconic cowboy Duval, whom Alice finds herself falling for.
As winter moves to scorching summer, what seemed idyllic turns deadly as Alice is drawn deeper into an obsessive quest for revenge until finally she must decide how much she is willing to sacrifice in order to preserve not only her freedom, but Benjamin and Duval’s as well.
A compelling and perilous love story, Midnight Cactus explores the tensions between unrealized dreams and the pull of family. In a blistering climax, Alice discovers it is only by risking everything that one learns what is really worth living for.
“Pollen creates a scorching landscape and a large, finely drawn cast, and her portrayal of the pressure-cooker atmosphere along the border is notable for its lack of preachiness.” –Publishers Weekly
“Engagingly perky, with big themes–justice, immigration, and lost children–surprisingly well served by the author’s comic, quirky style.” –Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Seductive and disturbing ” Alice Coleman is an entertaining heroine.” –Ann Cummins, San Francisco Chronicle
“Absorbing ” Pollen transforms a seemingly familiar tale of a woman on the verge into a lively meditation on how far people will go to escape the grip of the past.” –Anat Rosenberg, Entertainment Weekly
“[A] very entertaining novel”. Pollen gives us a more objective, almost reasonable take on the troubled situation on our border crossings. She’s writing fantasy, certainly, but that allows us to back off a little and cool down. She puts our feelings about duty, need, even adventure, into a larger context.” –Carolyn See, The Washington Post
“A sensitive tale of decamping to Arizona, getting caught up in an illegal immigrant run and
needing to face reality. Highly recommended.” –The Bookseller
“An intriguing portrait of the immigration question. It’s a description that makes the struggles individual instead of national, bringing us face to face with the details that are often overlooked or ignored in political debate or media commentary. [Bella Pollen] never shies away from the ugliness of the topic, and her prose is so elegant that you can’t help becoming engrossed in the fortunes of these people whose lives have intersected…” –Kristin Latina, The Providence Journal
“A delightful and rewarding novel, with moments of startling beauty . . . Pollen is entirely in control of her material, perfectly pacing the book to tantalizingly unravel secrets. The setting is as enigmatic as the eccentric characters. . . . Successfully marries literary and commercial fiction . . . compelling . . . intelligent and provocative.” –Kim Aikman, Mslexia
“Gripping and a good story . . . Has all the best things about cowboy books. [Pollen] has a way with words–specifically children’s words, which is really rare.” –Tatler
“Effortlessly readable, this is an engrossing novel about love, alienation, and political intrigue…. Pollen perfectly captures the emotional turbulence of her heroine and the unforgiving beauty of this arid territory.” –Simon Humphreys, The Mail on Sunday
“A wittily written story . . . As author Bella Pollen adds unforeseen twists and turns, Alice is forced to the very edge of reason. You can be assured of a sophisticated yet gripping page-turner.” –Easy Living
“Sizzling”” –Sue Corbett, People
“Unexpectedly warm and witty while depicting the tough life of illegal immigrants and the ruthlessness of those out to expose them.” –Sarah Broadhurst, LoveReading.co.uk
We’re beginning to get the hang of our new way of life now. For a few days after we arrived I found myself looking over my shoulder, fearful that at any moment someone, namely Robert, would barge into the town and drag us kicking and screaming back to reality, but then it dawned on me that Temerosa was our new reality.
Here the iron bars of routine and habit we’d been so imprisoned by in the city have begun to soften and bend. In our brave new world, early mornings are spent wallowing in the old copper bath. As the heat seeps from our bodies into the cool morning air, we watch the sun climbing round the edges of the mountain. This morning I noticed a smudge of nail varnish on my big toe like a souvenir from another, different life.
“I can clean that off for you Mummy,” Emmy offered, “when I have time.”
And time is what we now have. Time is everywhere, ours to spend how we please, and we’re making good use of it.
We explore the hills around town and play on the carcasses of mining equipment. We collect grasses to press (Emmy) or set up rusted cans on rustier barrels and throw rocks at them (Jack). We moon around like love-sick teenagers waxing lyrical about the view or going on and on and on about the beauty of the mountain and its glorious sounds of silence (me) until the children’s eyes roll back in their heads and they start choking on their tongues.
By Rose Kernochan
1) Alice seems, at the start, like a typical upper-middle-class English wife–except for the fact that she has inexplicably taken her two young children all the way to a remote cabin in Arizona. Does she at first seem to you like a sympathetic character, or like a naive, “foolish gringa”? Do you understand, at first, her desire to take her children away from their home, their father, and the physical safety of London? What qualities, nonetheless, make her appealing, from the beginning?
2) When Alice first arrives in Arizona, what strikes her most vividly about the Southwest? What aspects of her life here are most different from her London lifestyle? What does she like best about it?
3) How does her Englishness affect the way she sees the people and the scenery? Do you agree with her feelings about the Americans she meets?
4) At first, the primitive Southwestern desert looks beautiful to her–and their bare-bones cabin is a haven, “their new little house on the prairie.” Does she continue to feel this way? What gradually makes her realize that life in the Southwest’s borderland is not just picturesque, but actually brutal?
5) In the little school at Devil’s Slide that Alice’s children attend, “geography seems to be the only thing [Emmy] is taught,” and her daughter comes home scratched with the “battle scars’ of rough outdoor play. Do Alice’s children learn more from the landscape than they do at the schoolhouse? What are they finding out? Are they picking up skills that may be more valuable to them than the ‘spoilt city ways’ that they learned in London?
6) From early on, Alice seems torn between her children and her desire for adventure. “That’s what you came here for, isn’t it?” says Duval. “The blind step in the dark, and the freedom to take it.” Again and again, she leaves her children with the caretaker and goes out on dangerous errands near the border. Do you feel that it is all right for a mother to put herself at risk the way Alice does? Is it ultimately her choice, or does her responsibility to her children morally outweigh her obligation to help save others’ lives?
7) The Border, just six miles from Temerosa, figures strongly in the narrative, almost like an extra character in the book’s story. It’s “a place where crazy ideas flourish”; where deception and crime abound. Duval repeatedly tells Alice that she must not “cross the line.” What else does the border represent? What is Pollen saying about the lines we draw in life to protect ourselves–between the law and lawlessness, between safety and danger? Are borders a good thing, or are they too artificial to work? What are some of the lines that you don’t dare to cross?
8) The people who live near the Mexican border are like a group of face-down cards; they are not quite who they seem. As the story moves forward, the cards slowly flip over, and the characters, both good and evil, are revealed. Even Alice, our narrator, discloses only gradually that she left her husband to come renovate his Southwestern property, because his investments had failed. Who are some other characters who are not what they seem at first? Do our views of them change again and again over the course of the book? Does this give us a better sense of the shifting moral values of border life?
9) Alice’s neighbor, Jeff Hogan, and his friends are trying to stop illegal Mexican workers from crossing the border. They are trying to enforce the law and protect their own property. Alice’s foreman, Duval, is breaking the law–but he is also saving the lives of the illegals he tries to help. Which stance do you agree with most? If you yourself lived near the Border, would you join Duval, Hogan–or neither of them?
10) Alice’s sympathy is clearly with the illegal Mexican immigrants: the “almond growers, peach pickers, porch sweepers, janitors, each a tiny cog on which Wall Street and the price of frozen OJ turns.” How do you feel about the moral dilemma of America’s dependence on illegal migrant workers–a situation which, in theory, it has outlawed?
11) On one of their walks, Duval hands Alice a delicately etched, fossilized leaf. “Think of the unimaginable pressure it’s had to withstand,” he says. “It’s been burnt by lava, flooded, crushed, and yet it’s still survived.” Are the illegals whom Pollen describes in this novel like those leaves–fragile beings who have survived unthinkably hard times?
12) Alice is fascinated by what she calls the ‘snail tracks’ of people’s lives: the ways in which they almost invisibly run parallel, or cross in ways that later prove to be significant. What are some of the most significant ‘snail track” patterns in the book? What chance meetings and connections change Alice’s life for good?
13) In the book, Alice’s destiny echoes that of Estella, an illegal who died during her flight to the North. At the end, Alice almost dies in precisely the same place, in the same way as Estella–but instead she is saved. In juxtaposing the situations of the legal and illegal immigrant, what is Pollen trying to say?
14) When Alice first meets her foreman, Duval, he is clearing blockage out of the pipes in her house, a blockage she didn’t know she had. What emotional obstacles will he clear away for her, in the end?
15) Alice’s love for Duval–a man who is also fleeing his past–seems intense and genuine. But “the only love you can have as a fugitive is a stolen one,” Duval says. Does Alice’s love for Duval seem realistic or just romantic to you? Did you agree with her decision to leave him?
16) In her Author’s Note, Bella Pollen writes that this book is about “the possibility and impossibility of escape” –and also, “the tug of war between freedom and duty.” This book seems to conclude, in the end, that duty is something one must return to, as Alice does. Do you agree with that? If you were Alice, how might you do things differently?
Suggestions for further reading:
Crossing Over by Ruben Martinez
Martinez documents the struggles of the Cheran family, who have lost three sons in a border crossing. This is a beautifully written book that examines both the human and political story of the border.
The Tortilla Curtain by T. Coraghessan Boyle
The life of a wealthy and liberal suburbanite collides quite literally with a homeless illegal immigrant in the hills outside the gated communities of southern California. Bitingly funny, sharply satirical, and hugely intelligent, Tortilla Curtain is so fast paced it reads like a thriller.
Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne Du Maurier
One of Daphne Du Maurier’s most enduring and romantic novels. Set in seventeenth-century restoration England, an aristocrat escapes her meaningless existence in London and takes refuge in Cornwall, where she becomes involved with a pirate who is terrorizing the Cornish coast.
Tunnel Kids by Lawrence J. Taylor and Maeve Hickey
An eye-opening and often heartbreaking account of the orphans of Nogales, their existence in the sewage tunnels, and the efforts made by a local hospice to help them.