Slash and Burn is an ember of a novel. Originally published in Spanish, this restrained narrative about a mother’s sacrifice surges with hot undercurrents of danger and memory.
Set in an unspecified Latin American country that resembles author Claudia Hernández’s native El Salvador, the story spans its unnamed protagonist’s childhood, motherhood and grandmotherhood. As a young girl, she realizes that threats to women in the village are no more dangerous than those faced by the guerrilla fighters in the mountains, so she decides to join her father and brothers fighting the military-led junta. During her time as a combatant, she has a number of romantic trysts, resulting in the birth of her daughters. Despite her commitment to the guerrilla cause, one of her daughters is stolen from her as punishment for getting pregnant.
Years later, the woman, now an ex-combatant, risks everything to find her long-lost daughter in Paris. Meanwhile, her other daughters are left to contend with the omnipresent threats of poverty, rape and postwar pillaging. The tension between independence and family responsibilities permeates this stark narrative.
A notable feature of this novel is its dearth of proper nouns. While ex-combatants use a combination of war aliases, given names and chosen names to increase their odds of subsisting, readers never learn what those names are. In this way, Hernández extends the book’s theme of secret-keeping. Just as former guerrilla fighters conceal the profane truths of wartime, Hernández withholds names to remind readers that in this shifting landscape, privacy means everything. During the national struggle over land and inheritance, identity is built on shifting sands.
Despite ongoing political instability, Hernández’s levelheaded women and girls outwit (and outlive) countless men on all sides of the struggle. There is little glory for these women, but there is much honor, and the quest for education, security and—above all—togetherness in war-torn El Salvador establishes this novel as a new kind of hero’s journey.
Ultimately, Slash and Burn is an unflinching meditation on girlhood and womanhood. The compañeras-in-arms within its pages ask few favors, preferring to toil with honor rather than fall prey to the disappointment of broken promises. In this slow burn, Hernández ferries her characters across oceans for the common purpose of finding home—an as-yet-unnamed possibility.