How can a bullfighter be a coward? He can't, which is why young Manolo knows he can't follow in his great father's footsteps, his father Juan Olivar who was the greatest bullfighter Andalusia has ever known. Manolo is afraid of heights, he's afraid of cars, and most importantly he's afraid of bulls.
But everyone expects him to be just like his father, to stride proudly into the bullfighting ring on his twelfth birthday, and to play and kill the first bull they send him. Perhaps more than anything else, however, Manolo is afraid of killing a bull, and though he practices in secret as much as possible his use of the cape and muleta, he cannot imagine putting a bull to death.
His fate is not strictly his own, unfortunately. Six men who know all there is to know about bullfighting, six men who loved nothing more than to watch Juan Olivar in the ring, take young Manolo under their collective wing and teach him the ways of bullfighting by taking him to matches and providing ceaseless commentary.
Manolo eventually befriends a young man named Juan who wants more than anything to become a bullfighter. Juan often sneaks into fields and capes bulls in the night, practicing his methods and sometimes being injured. He gives Manolo a chance to test his skill against a bull to be fought by "El Magnifico," but the younger boy loses his nerve.
The bull reserved for El Magnifico ends up goring the young matador. Manolo ends up by the 19-year-old's bedside, and when the village doctor comes to tend the matador's wounds, Manolo helps him. In this moment, Manolo realizes that this is what he wants to give his life to—saving lives through medicine, not killing bulls for sport.
But the day of his bullfight inexorably approaches. It even comes faster than expected, because the Count who was his father's patron decides Manolo must meet his first bull at the tender age of eleven, rather than waiting for his twelfth birthday. Manolo is nearly choked with fear, remembering that his father died in the bullring, knowing he cannot kill a bull.
In the end Manolo does face the bull, but he does not kill him, and instead gives that honor to Juan who goes on to a great career as a bullfighter. Manolo simply doesn't have the aficion, the great burning to fight bulls. His aficion is for healing, and the book closes with him helping the old doctor at the hospital, on his way to becoming a doctor himself.
It's a simple tale, very straightforward, but Maia Wojciechowska tells it with great affection and poetry. We see the dustry streets of Arcangel, Spain, hear the cheers of the crowds, smell the blood and fear and sweat of the ring, and understand a little better the desires and loves and passions that motivate men to take up cape and sword at great personal risk.
One of the most profound elements of Wojciechowska's depictions is her emphasis on the bravery not only of the matadors, but of the bulls themselves. Bullfighting is a sport of honor, and just as the matador must be a man of honor and bravery, so too are bulls judged on the nobility of their fighting and death.
The end, while gratifying, comes a bit too abruptly and without much foreshadowing. Manolo definitely shows his own bravery, and nobly bows to the dictates of his conscience, but he does so with no warning to the reader. While this is a flaw, it isn't enough to detract from the beauty and grace of this short book about great courage.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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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