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‘Green Grows the Grass’ explores darker side of Costa Rican life

Despite its themes of nature and resilience, B.A. Smith’s book tells a haunting story.

(Courtesy of Rough Water Press)

When we meet Dr. Katherine Stewart, she has arrived in Costa Rica, and she is pondering the mysterious loss of her father. After many years in the United States, Katie seems lost and forlorn, a stranger in the country of her childhood. This is understandable: Many years earlier, her father’s airplane disappeared over the Panamanian border, and no trace of the aircraft was ever found. Without closure, Katie is adrift.

At first, “Green Grows the Grass” is a novel that unravels slowly. Katie spends a great deal of time trying to situate herself in a country both familiar and foreign. Author B.A. Smith weaves together her description of Costa Rica from countless tiny phrases and images, artifacts that longtime residents will find familiar.

Even after Luis and his oxen had departed the pulpería, Katie continued rocking on the porch in a surprisingly comfortable chair fashioned of black iron rebar woven through with blue and white plastic strips… While sipping her steaming café con leche and nibbling at the edge of a María cookie, she watched the remains of the heavy neblina lift from the Central Valley.

Smith spends so much time developing the Costa Rican context that it’s hard to tell where her story is going. But just wait: The intrigue thickens rapidly, accumulating characters and subplots with each chapter, and the denouement is a scene of horrifying violence. True to the size and complexity of traditional Costa Rican relationships, a dizzying web of family and friends emerges. Smith heavily layers her novel with backstory, and readers must pay close attention in order to understand the final chapters.

While the novel is coherent, even eloquent, in its telling of an epic family saga, the most interesting part of the book is its author. Smith attended Lincoln High School in Costa Rica and went on to become a psychologist in the United States. While she currently lives in Maryland, Smith has spent considerable time here – and if it wasn’t already obvious that Katie is an autobiographical character, Smith’s own father also went missing while flying from Panama to Costa Rica.

Given the real-life inspiration for her story, much of the novel may feel uncomfortably close to home. Most scenes unfold in Escazú, where innumerable expats live, and corresponding scenes take place in Los Anonos, the impoverished little neighborhood hidden at the foot of San Rafael de Escazú. When we meet Felicia, a Nicaraguan émigré struggling to support herself, Smith bluntly describes the difficulties of many Nicaraguans’ lives in Costa Rica – the menial jobs, the ramshackle living conditions, and the unwelcome atmosphere. Add to this a tale of absent fathers and postwar revenge, and Smith’s narrative gets astonishingly dark.

Indeed, Katie’s fate is a genuine shocker, and it is unsettling that Katie and Smith bear such a close resemblance. While the epilogue attempts to explain this savage finale, “Green Grows the Grass” ends coldly. What little “pura vida” attitude exists among its pages is overshadowed by its bleak and lonely portrayal of Costa Rican life.

But this may be a good thing: The novel explores themes that few authors have had the courage to explore in English. For Smith, Costa Rica is a real place with real challenges, and despite its years of peace and prosperity, the people are inextricably tied to the brutal dramas of neighboring countries. On a practical level, Smith may struggle to find an audience; the novel will make little sense to tourists, and expats may recoil at its gloominess. Most Costa Ricans may not bother with it, just because it’s written in English. Yet for the readers who find it, “Green Grows the Grass” is a moving work of fiction. For Smith, it is clearly a tale that needed to be told.

“Green Grows the Grass” is available on Amazon. To learn more about B.A. Smith and her other books, visit her Facebook author page.

Contact Robert Isenberg at risenberg@ticotimes.net

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Adriana

I just finished reading the book (motivated by the Tico Times review), and I really liked it. While it confronts us with difficult truths about life in Costa Rica (especially for immigrants), it also radiates the author’s love for the country. As a Costa Rican living abroad, I appreciated the warm descriptions of my country and its people, but also the fact that the book goes beyond the “pura vida” and “happiest country on Earth” stereotypes, and delves more deeply into difficult parts of our region’s history. It is true that the ending is difficult, but somehow I wasn’t left with a sense of gloominess, but rather one of resilience, even hope.
The one thing I didn’t care too much for was the mixing of too many Spanish words in the characters’ dialogue. I understand that this may be necessary in some cases (especially for local words that cannot be so easily translated into English), but in my view sometimes the Spanish words became a distraction. But maybe this is a matter of taste. Overall, I really enjoyed the novel.

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mtkeating

I have never been to Costa Rica, but enjoyed the sense of atmosphere that builds in the first chapters. (I know the reviewer thought it was slow at first, but I found it effective. As a homebody, I rely on books to take me other places.) The pace of life and the customs of hospitality form a necessary underpinning for the story that plays out. I’d like to see the next book set in the current year, to see what’s changed.

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Morgan123

Thank you, Robert Isenberg, for your thoughtful review of Green Grows the Grass; it certainly reflects a thorough reading and understanding of my book. Costa Rica will always be a part of who I am–I love the country and its people and hope that although “bleak,” readers will understand that.

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ajusczyk

Ann Jusczyk
I have read this book and I found it riveting!

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Lor Mikke

Love it!

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Robert Isenberg

Sr. Rivera: I am delighted to hear that “GGtG” spoke to you, and I hope you’re right about broad expat readership. I hope this for two reasons: (1) Ms. Smith clearly put a lot of labor into writing this book, and her intentions seem extremely heartfelt and genuine. I think she deserves to be read. (2) The book will enrich a great many people’s understanding of (as you say) Costa Rica and Central America in general. I admire your faith in the sophistication of expat readers, and I would be grateful to learn that your instincts are accurate.

Sra. Duran: The book should be very easy to order in the States, either on Amazon or Kindle. I downloaded it myself as an ebook. Happy reading!

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Estela Pulido Duran

Where can i buy it n the US? Can’t wait to read it..sounds real and full of sociology..i worked at Lincoln school..it was an awful experience n the kids from the States were the best compated to CRicans n staff..it was a.CR i.did not know.existed.

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Sergio Rivera

As a native escazuceño living for many years now in the States, I found B.A. Smith’s novel very exciting. The places, the people, little things that only someone who has some milage in Costa Rica can write about, makes it very real. Don’t aggree with the Tico Times regarding the novel’s appeal to expats, actually I think any expat with any interest in the history of Costa Rica in particular and Central America in general or with any social sensibility towards the real Costa Rica could appreciate.

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