Tessa Bridal’s The Tree of Red Stars opens onto the beautiful and peaceful streets of Montevideo, Uruguay in the 1960s. For Magdalena and her best friends, Emilia and Cora, there is nothing quite as safe and perfect as their sheltered lives in an upscale neighborhood. Little did they know that whispers of revolution would soon infiltrate every corner of their beloved city, even into the homes of their own friends and neighbors.
Before the troubles, Magdalena – affectionately called Magda – and her friends barely knew the name “Tupamaros.” Some are destined to know the Tupas intimately, whether through choice or through false accusations leveled on them by local law enforcement. Many innocent people will be hurt by the ensuing instability; no one escapes that kind of political unrest unscathed.
Amid mounting social and political tensions, Magda tries her best to maintain a “normal” life – that is, until a fateful visit to the University where she hears Che Guevara speak. That speech changed her entire world in ways no one could have imagined. Whispers of revolution rose to a frightening pitch, leading the nervous police force into bouts of random arrests. This goaded the revolutionaries into employing terrorist tactics and engaging in guerrilla warfare in the city streets.
While I was in high school, I met someone online from Montevideo – a place I’d barely heard about with the lacking world studies offerings in my school. Throughout our discussions, he occasionally referred to bad things that had happened in the city in the recent past and “a lot of trouble” in the 60s and 70s. Sadly, South America is usually not a priority in the US school system – especially where our government’s own misdeeds come into play – so I had no idea what he was talking about.
I’m never one to simply accept ignorance. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, I started studying – first just Uruguay, then South America as a whole, slowly giving myself a picture of the 60s and 70s that was as complete as possible from textbooks. That finished, I needed to find biographies, historical fictions and other such materials to really bring the period to life. An Amazon search brought me The Tree of Red Stars, written by an Uruguayan author and based on her experiences in Montevideo during the “bad times.”
From the very first page, this story hooked me in and wouldn’t let me put it down. Tessa Bridal’s storytelling expertise is such that she brings a very involved and complicated story to the stage and delivers it in a simple, easy-to-read format. It moves along quickly and, at least for me, the only disappointment is when it ends, and then only because there isn’t any more.
This is not a feel-good book. It generally can’t be deemed kid-safe either. Expect a lot of violence and some sexual content, and an involved emotional retelling of the experiences of law-abiding citizens in a city that is no longer safe. This vivid historical fiction is dramatic and believable, providing a great opportunity to humanize the textbook retellings. It covers the Tupamaros National Liberation Movement during its heyday, a government suspending personal liberties, and an undercurrent of CIA support that served to exacerbate the problem.
As you can imagine, this book has no storybook “happily ever after.” It’s a bleak tale of terrible uncertainty, police misconduct and coming of age in an environment with no clear right or wrong.
My research into this time period isn’t sufficient to be able to say if the story is 100% historically accurate, but I can say that it jibes with what I already know of the time and of what I’ve heard from eyewitness accounts. Additionally, there are some great cultural details in the story that can help add a bit to your understanding of this fascinating country.
Overall, if you want a great historical fiction that has a very well-told story, this book is definitely worth the purchase. I haven’t met many people who are actively trying to learn more about Uruguay, but I have met plenty that barely have any idea of where the country is or anything about it – if they’ve heard of it at all. Both the country and the book are truly hidden gems, and well worth diving into during your reading time.