Beyond the Bougainvillea

Written by Dolores Durando
Review by Ellen Keith

Beyond the Bougainvillea is the first novel from ninety-year-old Durando. Basing it in part on her childhood in North Dakota in the 1920s, Durando does her real life one better and imagines first a harrowing and then ultimately triumphant life for her heroine, Marge Reagan. Marge, having lost her mother at eleven, finds herself married off to her drunken father’s equally drunken friend for land in North Dakota when she reaches sixteen. Raped and impregnated by her new husband, she loses the baby, and a kindly neighbour, as well as her doctor, provides the emotional and financial support to relocate her to Los Angeles.

Los Angeles is in the midst of the Great Depression, and the family with whom Marge boards has their own issues, but Durando makes Marge blossom. She goes to school and gains some independence. When the family with whom she lives is torn apart, she moves into a rooming house and forges an uneasy friendship with Nina, a Native American. With an inheritance received from her doctor in North Dakota, Marge moves to Auburn, Nina in tow, where she buys a bar/restaurant. A man, the foreman at the mine, finally comes between them.

Dozens of events are crammed into Marge’s young life. With both Nina and the Chinese workers whom Marge employs, Durando explores early 20th-century racism. While the Chinese come off as helpful and compassionate, neither Nina nor the other Native American in the story cover themselves in glory with their behavior. Durando has the tendency to allow characters’ retelling of events to be too detailed and vivid, which has the effect of making them unreal, and she ends the book with quite the coincidence. Nonetheless, I read this in one sitting, a testament to the author’s storytelling skill.