Saving the World
by Julia Alvarez

Published: 2007-04-27
Paperback : 400 pages
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"A gripping story of love, politics, greed and good intentions."—MSNBC.com

"Remarkable...Saving the World depicts the need to belong to something deeper and more enduring than ourselves." —The Washington Post Book World

Alma, the narrator of Saving the World, discovers a small ...

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"A gripping story of love, politics, greed and good intentions."—MSNBC.com

"Remarkable...Saving the World depicts the need to belong to something deeper and more enduring than ourselves." —The Washington Post Book World

Alma, the narrator of Saving the World, discovers a small historical footnote while doing research for a novel: In 1803, a Spanish doctor crossed the Atlantic with twenty-two orphan boys—live carriers of the smallpox vaccine—to inoculate the population of Spain's American colonies. Accompanying them on the two-year voyage was a mysterious woman, Isabel Sendales y Gómez, the rectoress of the orphanage. Captivated by Isabe'’s courage, Alma decides to tell the grueling story of their journey.

Meanwhile, Alma's husband, working with an organization committed to eradicating AIDS in developing countries, travels to the Dominican Republic. When his life is threatened, it is Isabel's strength and resolve that arouse Alma's unexpectedly heroic action.

This novel within a novel presents the radiant stories of two women swept up in campaigns against the scourges of their day.

Editorial Review

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In the fall of her fiftieth year, Alma finds herself lost in a dark mood she can’t seem to shake. It’s late September; she has actually not turned fifty yet, but she has already given that out as her age, hoping to get the fanfare and menopause jokes over and done with. It’s not her own mortality that weighs heavily on her. In fact, it makes her sad when she reads that women of her profile (active, slender, vegetarian, married) will probably live—if they take care of themselves—to ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

From the Publisher:

1. The two stories in this novel—Alma Huebner’s contemporary story and Isabel Sendales y Gómez’s nineteenth-century story—are narrated from strikingly different points of view. Alma’s is told in third person (she did this, she thought that). Isabel’s is told in first person (I did this, I thought that). Why do you think the author chose these particular points of view for her two characters?

2. Alma is inspired by Isabel’s story. Isabel’s courage and strength of character help Alma cope with her own fears and with the frightening situations she ultimately encounters. What in Alma’s character might have impressed and inspired Isabel?

3. Both women are attracted to and influenced by men with visions of helping mankind. What are the other clear parallels between these women’s lives and struggles?

4. Which character do you most identify with and why? Would you make the same decisions as that character?

5. After Don Francisco finishes dictating a letter addressed to his wife, Doña Isabel begins to cry, moved by his gentle words (page 204). “Some day,” he says to Isabel, “someone will write you such a letter, Doña Isabel. And you will think of me, perhaps.” Why do you suppose he says that to her, and how would you describe their relationship?

6. Helen is the only person to whom Alma confides about being unable to finish the novel. Why do you think Alma is able to entrust Helen with her doubts and fears? Is there something special about Helen that allows Alma to divulge her secrets?

7. What motivates people to try to “save the world”? What has/would motivate you to take up a humanitarian cause?

8. Is there a right way to carry out our humanitarian urges? In this novel, many characters try, in their own ways, to better the lives of the people around them. How did Tara, Mickey, and Hannah, the “terrorist” boys at the clinic, and Helen try to bring about change? Did these characters accomplish their goals in the end? Did Don Francisco, who forged humanitarianism with ego and ambition, achieve his true objective?

9. Saving the World suggests that there is a distinction between storytelling in our culture (the publishing business) and storytelling in our personal lives: as Alma worries about the significance of literature today—about modern publishing’s emphasis on fame and selfpromotion—she also uses Isabel’s story as a kind of mantra or guide as she navigates tricky, scary waters in her own life. How do you think the business of publishing affects the role of storytelling in our culture? What role can stories play in helping us change our own lives?

10. How would you characterize Don Francisco and Richard Huebner? Are there any similarities between them? Any glaring differences? What role does ambition play in the lives of the male characters? Does ambition take the same form for the female characters?

11. The first epigraph is taken from T. S. Eliot’s “Gerontion”: “Unnatural vices / Are fathered by our heroism. Virtues / Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.” Why do you think the author chose those particular lines from Eliot?

12. Is it possible to save the world, or do you think the title Saving the World is meant to be ironic? If you had been asked to help in selecting the title of this novel, what would you have suggested?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

Julia Alvarez is the author of five previous books of fiction, including How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies; a book of essays; five collections of poetry; and five books for children. She received the Hispanic Heritage Award in 2002. She lives in Vermont, where she is a writer-in-residence at Middlebury College.

Author Interview

Saving the Writer (With Lots of Helpers)

A Short Note from the Author

The seed of Saving the World sprouted in a footnote. Researching the history of the Dominican Republic for an earlier novel, I learned that in 1804 when the island of Hispaniola was in the midst of revolution, smallpox broke out. A footnote mentioned a missed opportunity. In February 1804, Dr. Francisco Xavier Balmis arrived in nearby Puerto Rico with his Royal Spanish Expedition bound on its mission to save the world with the smallpox vaccine. The carriers were orphan boys—this was before the days of refrigeration—twenty-two of them, all under the age of nine. But because the Spanish colony on Hispaniola was embattled and unsafe, Don Francisco’s expedition did not stop there.

Why had I never heard of this attempt to rid the world of a deadly disease? Though the Spanish crown’s motives were praised as noble, I could not stop thinking of those twenty-two boys. Must civilization always ride on the backs of those least able to defend themselves? Little boys! Orphans!

From then on, I tried to find out more about this smallpox expedition.

The best bit of information I found was that a woman had accompanied the expedition: the “rectoress” of the orphanage, Isabel Sendales y Gómez, went along to take care of the little boys. I knew this was a story I had to tell. What I didn’t know was that I was about to embark on my own expedition around the world—mostly electronically—to find out all I needed to know to tell this story.

It’s amazing how tolerant people are of writers with wacky requests. First, I needed to experience the feel of a rolling vessel, salt and wind in my hair, that sinking feeling when the land drops out of view. After all, Isabel had spent months crossing several oceans.

A local acquaintance has a daughter-in-law who teaches in one of those semesters at sea programs. During Caribbean stops, she has her students read my novel In the Time of the Butterflies. Which is how I made it on board—courtesy of Dee O’Regan—Spirit of Massachusetts, where I experienced seasickness firsthand, an ailment I passed on to poor Isabel and her little boys.

The tall-ship sailing world turned out to be a small one. Through Dee, I was put in touch with Joan Druett, author of Hen Frigates, a wonderful book on seafaring women. Joan proceeded to educate me with reading lists and expert answers to my questions. “The best way to go is to track your post and distinguish your problems,” she began one e-mail. In another, uncharacteristically stumped, she referred my question to Nick Burningham. “Genuflect when you read that name,” she said. “He’s currently in the Oman building models of Arab boats for the sultan.” In the Oman! It occurred to me to ask, “And where are you, Joan?” “Down Under,” came the reply.

I decided to do a bit of actual travel myself. Retracing Isabel’s journey, I headed to La Coruña, the port city from which the expedition set sail. I climbed the 234 steps of the Tower of Hercules. The oldest functioning lighthouse in the world, it had beamed a good-bye to the rectoress and her boys. Though the celebration of the expedition’s bicentennial (1803–2003) would not open until later that year, I collected the names of several experts to contact.

One of them, Catherine Mark, was this writer’s true fairy godmother. An American, she lives in Madrid and works at Centro Nacional de Biotecnología. She seems to have collected everything ever written about the expedition and is the hub of a worldwide assortment of Balmis aficionados informally known as “The Balmaniacs.” As my planned novel expanded to include a contemporary story and another scourge (AIDS), Catherine was ready with studies and statistics. Some days half a dozen e-mails would go back and forth, not all of them full of information. Sometimes it was long-time-a-coming advice on how to deal with that censoring presence that can afflict a writer midnovel and a person midlife:

So I have to be the one to explain the facts of life to you (sigh). Sit up straight, uncross your knees, and pay attention: at the age of fifty-whatever, it is now time to get rid of that little nun who’s been sitting on your shoulder and talking into your ear for the last four decades. Thank her for keeping you out of trouble in your wild-oats years (though I bet she didn’t), and let her fly away (your back isn’t what it was, and she really is too heavy).

Sometimes it was a name and contact. (José Rigau in Puerto Rico “knows everything about that portion of the expedition.” Ditto for Tom Colvin on the Philippine and Mexican portions. Also Michael Smith in Oklahoma, Susana Ramírez in Madrid . . .) Soon, I was shuttling around the world in cyberspace, coming “home” to the story with information I needed.

When I finally put the finished manuscript in the mail, I was stricken by the writer’s version of empty-nest syndrome. I sent Catherine a forlorn e-mail. She was having none of that. No way I was done, she flashed back. I was one of the carriers now. Again, Catherine’s right. I’ll be telling this story for the rest of my life.

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
  "Not her best work."by Juliana A. (see profile) 04/23/07

"Saving the World" was an interesting novel but unfortunately nothing compared to some of Alvarez's other works. Her novels "In the Time of the Butterflies" and "In the Name of Salome" are brilliant.... (read more)

  "Talk about the voice and development of characters! Alvarez has given voice to two intelligent and strong women in her new book!"by Mary M. (see profile) 04/17/07

The premise will shock you. The characters will win you over. This is an interesting character study of two women carrying on their struggles with their own eras of history, as the backdrop. Are some... (read more)

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