I, Juan de Pareja

I, Juan de Pareja

by Elizabeth Borton de Trevino
Trade Paperback, 180 pages
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Historical Setting: 17th century Spain

Historical fiction is tricky to get right. Not only must the author capture the basic human nature of her characters, she must do so with a constant and attentive eye to the moods, ideas, and conventions of the society in which they lived. Anyone can throw some generic characters into an historical setting, but it takes a brilliant writer to animate that historical setting believably, and then to breathe life into her characters within that established context.

Elizabeth Borton de Trevino is such a writer. She does not write about the Spain of her imagination, but the Spain of history; nor does she write about 20th century people somehow trapped in the Renaissance, but about Renaissance people alive and well in their own time. The result is I, Juan de Pareja, a novel so utterly satisfying in every regard as to make it a modern classic, and one that will not fall out of favor with discerning readers as long as such creatures exist.

The history: Juan de Pareja was a black slave in 17th century Spain, bequeathed at a young age from his dying mistress to her husband's nephew, Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez. This was none other than the painting Master Velazquez, a Spanish national treasure, and the father of many modern techniques and schools, including the Impressionists and the Realists. Juan (or Juanico, as he is called in the novel) was Velazquez's servant and friend, and before the painter's death became his assistant.

The novel: Trevino takes what little is known about Pareja and Velazquez and weaves their two stories together from the slave's perspective. She writes with an eloquent simplicity that well suits her narrator—a slave who has been educated, who serves one of the world's great artists, who has been well-treated for the most part, and who is deeply pious. Because Pareja was himself a painter, his narrative is one full of observation, tenderness, and honesty.

In the Afterword, Trevino reveals some of the real-life loose ends that appear in her story, explaining how she tied them up based on extant historical facts and her own perceptions. Even without this explanation, however, anyone familiar with European culture during the Renaissance will recognize Trevino's depiction as one rooted firmly in fact rather than her own imagination or some stereotypical presentation blindly accepted from dubious sources.

This alone makes the book well worth reading. The fact that Pareja and Velazquez were both deeply Christian men (albeit with the foibles of 17th century Roman Catholics), and that Trevino portrays them as such, is another reason to readI, Juan de Pareja. And of course Trevino is a gifted writer, and the story of Pareja's journey from slave to free man and painter in his own right is beautifully rendered, emotionally compelling, and just plain fascinating.

But this isn't just a "this is my life" novel rooted in historical fact. It's also a meditation on art, truth, and beauty. Velazquez once said (in real life, not in the novel) "I would rather be first in painting something ugly than second in painting beauty." Time after time Trevino's characters wrestle with this sentiment, not explicitly, but simply as they go about the task of their vocations, and even the plain living of their lives.

What's perhaps most surprising given this novel's many perfections is the fact that it's still a children's novel. That doesn't mean adults can't or shouldn't read it; on the contrary, any adult who loves a good book will likely love this one. But while Trevino explores many complex themes, presents a rich historical period in all its contradiction and wonder, and still paints humans as they are and always have been, she does so in an immediately accessible and plain way that children will be drawn to.

Even the best books on the Newbery Medal winners list are usually great children's literature, and little more. There are a few exceptions, and I, Juan de Pareja is certainly one of them. But it's also unique even in this, because while there are books on the list that are simply great novels regardless of intended audience, this is pretty much the only one that doesn't need some kind of "great, but not for younger readers" caveat. In every way, this is a great novel, and great children's literature.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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Summary: Brilliant historical novel about Juan, the black slave of renowned Spanish painting master Diego Velazquez.

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