Joel Agee, The Stone World

Book Review: The Stone World by Joel Agee

A quiet reflection of a world seen from the point of view of a six-year-old boy, Joel Agee’s first novel The Stone World, uncovers the lives of an expat family in Mexico, and the world around them. Surrounded by German and Hungarian expats, rich Americans, and poor indigenous people, labor activists, artists, musicians, and writers, their lives unfolds through the eyes of young Peter. Focusing on the boy’s immediate surroundings, Agee paints a vivid picture of Mexico in the 1940s.

Pira’s Surroundings

Sensitive and observant, Pira, as his Mexican friends call him, notices everything, but doesn’t judge. With best friends as opposite as Chris, the child of a rich American father, and Arón, a poor local boy raised by a single mother, he sees two very different sides of the same world.

The adult world around him is no less complex. His American mother is a violinist, who plays in a string quartet with three Hungarian musicians who fled their own country. His stepfather, a German writer, fled the Nazis of his own country and fought against Hitler in Spain. Though he never sees him, his American “first father”, David, is also in the picture through the letters they exchange. It is a perfect childhood in a changing world, in a small part of the world where everyone from such different backgrounds feels safe.

Everyone, except the locals. Mexico is a very different place for expats – no matter their backgrounds – and for locals, especially local indigenous people. We know this to be true for the 1940s from the book. But those of us who travel to Mexico, might still notice it to this day.

In the book, we get a glimpse into this life of locals, through the eyes of the family’s live-in maid, Zita, her fiancé, Federico, and Pira’s best friend, Arón. We see a life of poverty, strong religious beliefs and fights for injustice.

Though Pira is perceptive to these differences, he doesn’t judge.

And this may be the biggest advantage of telling a story from a young child’s perspective. Pira, at six years old, is too young to judge. His views are not yet prejudiced, or filled with learned opinions. Still, he often feels that some things are not right. However, he explores these feelings on his own, without adding a name to it.

Pira’s Stone World

His own Stone World helps him make sense of this world and offers a place to retreat when things around him are overwhelming.

We meet him in the garden, laying on the patio floor, with his ear pressed against the stone floor. He tells his mother he’s listening to the stone, yet he knows the stone is not talking. From the first paragraph, and throughout the book, we find that laying on the ground and putting his ears on the cold stone floor helps him sort through his emotions, his feelings. The quiet times help him find the words to make sense of his feelings, help him understand right from wrong.

The real world surrounding Pira is juxtaposed with the child’s inner life, his secret stone world, his imagination. We can all relate to a secret world we create in our childhood. It might not be a stone world, like Pira’s, yet it is a real inner world of a child. It is a safe place where we can let our imagination run wild, where we can get absorbed into another realm, where we feel safe and comfortable, alone with our thoughts and feelings.

For Pira, this world is underground. He can listen to it, even see it when he lays with his head against the cold stone. In this world, he feels safe to explore his feelings, his thoughts, his observations. It is also a world he can retreat to when he has nothing interesting going on in his surroundings.

This is his secret world, the only thing he doesn’t share with anyone. Until the end, when he knows he’s leaving and tells his best friend, Arón, about it. He is relieved, however, when his friend doesn’t believe him.

His Real World

Agee never mentions the name of the Mexican town Pira lives in. But those who visited Mexico would guess Puebla City, or a town in the vicinity, since we know he could see Popocatepetl and Iztacchíhuatl, the two volcanoes whose legends he learns from Zita. However, the identity of the town is not important, since the story could have happened in any town in Mexico. Everything he describes is so universally Mexico, we can recognize it to this day, eight decades later.

Reading the novel, I can see this family and their surrounding world in a Mexican town. It could be any Mexican town, I’ve visited several, and I can imagine myself in this one. As I read, I see the windows with no glass, with bars running through them, letting the noises of the outside world in while grounding the families into the lives of the surrounding city. I hear the noises of the city. I see myself in the market, in the streets, in the parks he visits. It could be Puebla, or it could be any Mexican town with a mixed population of indigenous people, Mexicans, and expats from different backgrounds.

I also feel Pira’s love for his adopted country and its people throughout the book, through his actions and preferences. When he tries to make sense of the expression “homesick”, he understands he would feel homesick if he had to leave Mexico.

Final Thoughts

Observing without judging is something we can hardly do as adults. But from a six-year-old child’s perspective, it feels natural.

Recreating a childhood in such vivid details, combining a child’s inner world and real life, offers an opportunity for us, the readers, to return to our own childhood. We all remember the wonders of the adult world around us. Many of us can relate to the efforts of trying to make sense of it all, often retreating into an imaginary world we keep secret, a world where we are free to explore all our feelings, seek answers for our questions.

For the protagonist of The Stone World, this all happens in Mexico, just like it did for its writer. Joel Agee’s first novel, The Stone World, is based on his own childhood in Mexico in the 1940s. A writer and award-winning translator, Agee lived in Mexico as a young child between 1941 and 1948. The novel is based on his years spent there.

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