In ENCOUNTERS AFTER THE SUNSET, Ricardo Suarez-Gartner finds adventure in his own family tree. His quest to uncover how the disparate branches got to the New World carries him far beyond Colombia—the land of his more immediate ancestry—to the archives of the old Spanish crown, beside the English coastline and underneath tunnels below medieval German mining towns.
Suarez-Gartner’s family mined—a lot. They also built dams, served the Catholic church and possibly engaged in some smuggling, taking part in Colombia’s War of Independence, the American Civil War and the California gold rush, as well as feeling the impact of the Spanish Conquest and Inquisition, along the way.
Suarez-Gartner’s research is impressive. He combed through ancient city archives and old family recollections, poured over memoirs, travel accounts and other legal documents, and visited small towns in the Andes and the Rhineland. Historical curiosities bubble into the narrative: the resourcefulness of the Cornish miners during their diaspora; the last enclave of pagans in the Germanic forest, surviving into the 16th century and inspiring the Faust legend; miners traveling through tunnels that connected towns when the winter frost made the surface too cold to navigate. It’s enough to make some readers intrigued by their own hidden family histories.
It’s easy enough to feel like you’re hearing directly from Suarez-Gartner, which is good and bad. It’s good when his enthusiasm and energy is palpable; it’s bad when he leaps from family history to personal travel tale and back again, like an excited storyteller caught in his own story and dropping details along the way. The text is blocky and its narrative inconsistent. Occasionally important things—like in which state, or even country, the current family memory is taking place—get lost. Images of gravestones, signatures and buildings break up the text, but surprisingly, perhaps frustratingly, the one graphic that’s missing is a map. Of course, part of Suarez-Gartner’s point might be that it is not artifacts that keep family histories alive but stories.
The most poignant story might not be one from the past, but one from the all too present present. At one point, Suarez-Gartner locates a distant branch of his family tree in Iowa. Their family plot in the local cemetery is unkempt, so the author donates some money to help maintain it. However, Suarez-Gartner admits that time will eventually cover it with weeds. “C’est la vie!” he concludes—but he still tells their tale.
At points engaging, eccentric and elliptical, ENCOUNTERS AFTER SUNSET shows how far one can go exploring a family tree.
~Colin Newton for IndieReader