Still Water Saints chronicles a momentous year in the life of Agua Mansa, a largely Latino town beyond the fringes of Los Angeles and home to the Botánica Oshún, where people come seeking charms, herbs, and candles. Above all, they seek the guidance of Perla Portillo, the shop’s owner. Perla has served the community for years, arming her clients with the tools to overcome all manner of crises, large and small. There is Juan, a man coming to terms with the death of his father; Nancy, a recently married schoolteacher; Shawn, an addict looking for peace in his chaotic life; and Rosa, a teenager trying to lose weight and find herself. But when a customer with a troubled and mysterious past arrives, Perla struggles to help and must confront both her unfulfilled hopes and doubts about her place in a rapidly changing world.
In the fictional town of Agua Mansa (just outside of Los Angeles, California), when problems arise -- family, romantic, health, what have you -- the citizens go to see local healer Perla Portillo at her shop, the Botanica Oshun. A place where she practices her own special brand of a sort of white magic. Here, Perla has therapy chats with her neighbors and then customizes a package for them. Usually the package is made up of teas, candles or herb mixes but it varies with the situation. While each client's story has its unique challenges, one man will prove to be more difficult to help than the rest.
Elderly Perla meets young Rodrigo when he mysteriously shows up outside her shop one day, just observing her for awhile. When he gets up the nerve to speak to her, he asks her to teach him how to speak English better. Perla is a little surprised by the request but is concerned about the somewhat sickly look the boy has, not to mention the numerous, mysterious burn marks she spots all over his body. She decides she needs to help him any way she can but soon finds herself fighting against his elusiveness, his unexplained fear and constant desire to flee at any moment. In the process of trying to help Rodrigo, Perla finds herself having to confront her own inner demons.
Though this is considered a novel, the chapters almost read like individual short stories. Each chapter focuses on one particular resident of Agua Mansa and their interaction with Perla. Sometimes the chapters are told from Perla's perspective, but all the chapters weave together so as a whole you get to see the inner workings of this small community, with chapters often referencing something or someone mentioned in a previous chapter.
I liked all the diversity within the Agua Mansa community! These chapters have stories of the struggles of inter-racial relationships, the process of transition for one transgender character, there's even a character fighting with infertility. So many minority voices and concerns addressed in this one little story! This novel is also an education in the influence of Catholicism within a Hispanic community, with many of the characters pouring their woes and hopes in prayers to saints or what might be considered more pagan spirits -- a number of them I've either rarely or never heard mentioned before -- such as Chango, lord of lightning; Orunla, spirit of wisdom and divination; Yemaya, the daughter of the sea, just to name a few. There's also explanation between the difference between Ellegua -- the energy of the universe -- and Elegua, who opens locked doors, thereby opening up possibilities.
I also smiled at the reference to classes being taught about "The Big One": The earthquake that all kids who grow up in the Southern California school system seem to grow up hearing about. I know I heard quite the horror stories at my own elementary school in San Diego about how one day soon there was going to be a huge quake that was going to break off the whole state of California from the rest of the US, making it an island. My mom heard these stories when she was school age in San Diego, my older brother heard it, I heard it, kids now are still getting those stories and it has yet to happen. Not saying it couldn't or it won't, I'm just saying seeing it mentioned in this story made me grin a little simply because of the nostalgia factor, dark as that might sound, lol.
Note to sensitive readers: There are some scenes in the story with gritty, adult content -- two friends doing speed, watching porn, one man having sex while another man looks on -- just wanted to give a heads up to anyone who wishes to avoid this kind of content. Also, POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: there are also brief descriptions / scenes of rape and self-harm within this novel.