Review: A Ballad of Love and Glory by Reyna Grande

Reviewed by Vince Granata

Atria Books. 2022. 370 pages.

Reyna Grande’s A Ballad of Love and Glory offers a close look at a largely unexamined—at least by Americans—chapter of history, one in which American aggression led to a devastating war that created the current border with Mexico. As Grande writes in her author’s note accompanying the novel, “The Mexican-American War has been called the war that the U.S. cannot remember and Mexico cannot forget.”

Perhaps it’s no surprise that there have been few works of American art that have tackled the war. The war began as a U.S. land grab, President James K. Polk making good on his expansionist promises by imposing a new border between the countries, the Rio Grande, which was well south of the previous line. A Ballad of Love and Glory begins in 1846, as American troops mass along the river, poised to invade.

Grande’s novel is a dual perspective foray into the chaos of war and the snatches of humanity salvaged amidst destruction. Grande found one of her protagonists, John Riley, through the little-known story of the Saint Patrick’s Brigade, a company of predominantly Irish defectors from the American army who fought on the Mexican side during the war. Her other protagonist, Ximena Salomé Benítez Catalán, came to Grande when she read a John Greenleaf Whittier poem, “The Angels of Buena Vista,” which depicts a Mexican woman aiding casualties on the battlefield. The novel excerpts the poem as its epigraph: “Speak and tell us, our Ximena, looking northward far away, O’er the camp of the invaders, o’er the Mexican array.” As a soldadera, Ximena is one of the many women who supported the Mexican army. For Ximena, this means tending to the wounded using the skills she learned from her grandmother, a gifted curandera or folk healer.

Early in the invasion, U.S. soldiers decimate Ximena’s home. “The wind rippled through the zacahuistle grass. Specks of the windblown ash settled on her opened hand, and she licked them off her palm, tasting the bitter sorrow of innocent families displaced from their homes.” Grande’s lyricism persists even in these descriptions of loss and destruction, her prose, like the novel as a whole, intent on finding beauty and humanity without undercutting the brutality of war.