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How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents

Julia Alvarez

The Drum

An American Surprise

Important Quotations Explained

Summary

Yolanda's grandmother brought her a bright new drum from a trip to New York City. Yolanda played her drum too loudly and was scolded to play responsibly like an adult by her mother. Her grandmother said that if Yolanda were a good girl, she would eventually get to take a trip to the United States and see FAO Schwarz and snow. She agreed to play in a well-behaved way in the yard rather than inside the house. For weeks she drummed all day long, until she lost one of the drumsticks. Then Yolanda's aunt sat on the second drumstick, leaving her a drum but no sticks to drum with. She tried to use pencils or wooden spoons, but they did not sound as good.

Yolanda liked to sneak into the coal shed, which their maid, Pila, had claimed was haunted by spirits, ghosts and devils. Pila had stolen from the family, and had been dismissed by the time Yolanda got her drum. Yolanda was still scared of the coal shed, and the stories she had told about how she lost one of her eyes. Yolanda once went looking for devils in the shed, but only found a bunch of newborn kittens. She was not sure what to do with kittens, and hoped to ask a grownup for advice. Then she noticed a strange man crossing the yard with a dog and a gun. Yolanda asked him for advice, and the man insisted that a kitten must be old enough to survive without its mother before it could be a good pet. He explained that to take the kitten earlier would be a violation of its right to life, because the kitten would die without its mother. Yolanda decided she would name her favorite kitten Schwarz. When the man with the dog began shooting his gun, the mother cat ran away. Yolanda decided not to take his advice, since he was a hypocrite killing birds who surely had babies too.

Yolanda took Schwarz away from the shed, and as she spotted the mother cat, she remembered that Pila had lost an eye while being attacked by a cat. Yolanda put the kitten into the drum and replaced the lid, drumming to drown out the kitten's cries to its mother. She ran past the cat and took the kitten inside. She got annoyed with the kitten's plaintive meows and threw it outside again, injuring its leg. The kitten had trouble finding its way back to the shed, and the mother cat had disappeared. Later, the kitten also disappeared. Yolanda had nightmares and visions of the mother cat that haunted her at night. Yolanda briefly recounts the rest of her life, "collapsing all time now so that it fits in what's left in the hollow of my story." She now writes about her ghost stories and bad dreams, still haunted by the "violation that lies at the center of my art."

Analysis

The kitten symbolizes the daughters of the Garcia family, who were taken from their motherland while they were too young to survive without it. Just as Schwarz was physically wounded during the abrupt transition, they were emotionally and psychologically injured during the process of having to adapt to a new cultural environment. Schwarz's slow and unsuccessful progress back toward the place she had been prematurely taken from mirrors Yolanda's journey, described in the first chapter, back to her homeland. Yolanda's guilt that she had violated the kitten's right to grow normally in the way it ought to foreshadows the problems she and her sisters will face as they grow up in a new country, carrying along the baggage of the past.

The structure and timeline of the novel is reflected in the last line of this chapter, when Yolanda explains that time has been collapsed into the story. Time has been folded up, just as the kitten was stuffed into the hollow of the drum. Yolanda was first troubled by the idea of this violation in the Dominican Republic with the kitten, but the haunting continues throughout her life. This psychological distress unfolds into further traumas, which can be traced back to her being uprooted from the Dominican Republic, her culture, and her extended family at a very young age.

The mother cat that continually appears in her dreams represents her home, the Dominican Republic, which reproaches her for leaving but cannot be found again. The kitten is lost and cannot return to the coal shed, just as Yolanda will feel lost as an adult, and will be unable to find her roots when she returns home in the first chapter. The conclusion of the novel circles back to the beginning, showing the impossibility of regaining a place within Dominican culture. Similarly, the beginning of Yolanda's life circles forward toward the future, when the smaller troubles suffered as a young child will be compounded and supplanted by the larger problems of immigration and cultural transformation. Yolanda's sense of cultural violation, stemming from her experience as a child immigrant, becomes the focus of her creative endeavors and her mature understanding of her cultural and personal identity. Her writing and poetry will center on the haunting that begins with Schwarz and continues throughout her adult life as she struggles to incorporate the past into her life. The image of the drum represents this effort because Yolanda's story has a hollow space where she keeps the painful memories, and it is this emptiness that provides a resonance for her literary achievements.

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