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Stones for Ibarra

By Harriet Doerr

Original Publisher: The Viking Press
Current Publisher: Viking Penguin

Marie Myung-Ok Lee writes:

My mother-in-law introduced me to Harriet Doerr’s Stones for Ibarra. Like its protagonists, Richard and Sara Everton, my husband’s grandparents also uprooted themselves and moved to a small Mexican town seemingly in the middle of nowhere and at a time when few Americans ventured there. My mother-in-law enjoyed the book because she loved how it reminded her of life in that Mexican village, Alamos. When visiting Alamos one summer, I decided it would be an appropriate place to read this book.

The book calls itself a novel, but it’s more like a small village of stories wheeling off a common center. This hub is Sara Everton, through whose eyes (not always kind to Mexicans or their culture) we catch in glances the dramas of this village, including an ex-boxer who was blinded in a fight, a tale of sibling love that ends in an accidental fratricide; we learn about women who gossip, about the talented potter committing a slow suicide through alcohol, about an assistant priest whose love affair goes unremarked until the couple is caught in a public situation. We also, slowly, unpiece the story of the Evertons, who have come to Ibarra because Richard has inherited a copper mine abandoned by his grandfather fifty years earlier. This young couple plans to spend the rest of their lives in Mexico—not knowing that because of Richard’s cancer, he will indeed die there but “thirty years sooner than he now imagines.”

Being in Mexico and recognizing in Ms. Doerr’s stories the same fantastical combination of brightest sunlight, mangy village dogs, blazing bougainvillea, and sugar skulls atop frosted cakes made reading a kind of real-time experience. However, the book would have been equally enjoyable had I read it in back Rhode Island, perhaps on the cooling seashore, so captivated was I with this author who could write such spare, evocative prose and add a twist, as if to keep things from becoming too writerly:

They rebuilt their house, digging away adobe until every view had a window to contain it.

And, as inspiration to writers everywhere, Ms. Doerr was 74 when Stones won the National Book Award.

Marie Myung-Ok Lee’s most recent novel is Somebody’s Daughter. She was a National Book Award judge in 2004 and teaches at Brown University.


ISBN: 9780140112184

First Work of Fiction Finalists that Year:

  • Kem Nunn for Tapping the Source
  • Padgett Powell for Edisto

Fiction Judges that Year: Not available

The Year in Literature:  

  • Ironweed by William Kennedy won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
  • Jaroslav Seifert won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

More Information:

In 1930, after her junior year at Stanford University, Harriet Huntington left college to marry Albert Doerr Jr. When her husband died in 1972, Doerr decided to finish her education at Stanford, and earned a BA degree in European history. While at Stanford, she began writing, with enough success to earn a Stegner Fellowship in 1979, and she soon began publishing her work. Stones for Ibarra, her first novel, was published when she was 74 years old.

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