Use this guide for your own reading and contemplation of The Weight of All Things by Sandra Benítez.
Reading The Weight of All Things
Sandra Benítez wrote The Weight of All Things drawing from her personal experience growing up in El Salvador, Mexico, and the United States. As a Puerto-Rican American living in diverse contexts, Benítez developed an understanding of multiple cultures and “how the people in each culture think about the other.” In her novel, the reader experiences a textured and vivid account of Salvadoran people, beliefs, landscape, and daily life against the backdrop of El Salvador's civil war.
Reading The Weight of All Things invites the reader to dive deeper into Salvadoran culture and history and to encounter this country through the eyes of a young boy. Salvadoran beliefs and practices are deeply indebted to Catholic faith and practices, which are distinct from American evangelical theology and devotional practices. Because of these cultural and religious differences, Core Book readers are invited to explore the reading guide below for more on El Salvador’s history, people, and religion.
As you read the novel pay attention to your responses to the text—curiosity? sorrow? disagreement? hope? How you respond can help determine what is at stake for you as you encounter the novel's characters and their culture, and where God might use this story to provoke reflection or change.
Mary in The Weight of All Things
Readers will notice immediately that young Nicolás’ devout faith is often expressed through his devotion to Mary. The reader is left wondering if the young boy’s visions are real or imagined, and Benítez does not answer that question for us, leaving space for multiple interpretations. We do know that Nicolás finds comfort and experiences God’s love and presence through his encounters with Mary, the mother of God, while he is reeling from the trauma of witnessing his mother’s sudden death. Evangelical theology and interpretation of scripture does not affirm Marian apparitions or prayer to Mary, but Evangelicals do affirm the remarkable faithfulness Mary demonstrated in answering the call to give birth to and then mother Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Associate Professor of New Testament Amy Peeler explains the significance of Mary and her role in the Bible.
Understanding El Salvador
The Weight of All Things takes place in the Republic of El Salvador (the “Republic of The Savior”), the smallest and most densely populated Central American nation-state. Although a fictional journey, the story begins and ends with historical events that mark the beginning of a civil war (1980-1992) that would eventually take the lives of at least 70,000 civilian noncombatants and forcibly displace another one million Salvadorans from the ranchos, villages, rural hamlets, and urban neighborhoods they called home. El Salvador’s war may have ended in 1992, but the task of explaining and making sense of the many causes and consequences of the civil war continues. Salvadorans still grapple with the ongoing impact of the war’s violence and displacement.
This guide written by Dr. James Huff (Associate Professor of Human Needs and Global Resources and Anthropology) offers key information about the larger political-economic, historical, social, and environmental contexts within which The Weight of All Things’ story develops and unfolds. You may find this background information on El Salvador and the civil war more illuminating if read while you read the novel and as you accompany the nine-year-old protagonist, Nicolás, as he courageously bears the weight of all things.
The nine-year-old protagonist carries a tremendous burden throughout the novel.
- How does Benítez' choice to tell this story in the form of a novel (rather than a history or a documentary or an essay) affect what we receive from it?
- Why might Benítez have chosen a young, orphaned child as the main character?
- How do Nicolás’ childlike responses to his loss shape your view of him? Of other characters?
Nicolás prays regularly and attempts to mimic his mother’s Catholic faith and devotion.
- Why might Benítez have made the choice for Nicolás to have his chief consolation come through encounters with the ultimate Catholic symbol of maternal love, the Virgin Mary?
- What are some of the differences in his Salvadoran and Catholic expressions of belief and your own faith and devotional practices? What are some similarities?
A repeated theme throughout the novel is the cruelty and meaninglessness of the war’s impact on Nicolás, his family, his ranch, and his community.
- What are some examples throughout the novel of absurd consequences of the political conflict?
- Who is assigned agency for the violence waged against the Salvadoran people?
An important element to Benítez’s storytelling is the role of the land and the environment.
- How might the river or the landscape be ascribed the role of a character or agent in the novel?
- How do we see humans interacting with the landscape?
- How is the land, the environment marked or changed by the civil war?
The Weight of All Things does not minimize the pain or damage that individuals bear due to social and political violence.
- What are some of the ways that Nicolás copes with his trauma and loss?
- How do we see Nicolás fighting for survival amidst threatening circumstances? Physically, emotionally, spiritually?
Consider the title of the novel and the moments in the text that it recalls. After reading the whole, who bears the weight of all things?
- What are some things you have learned or carry with you now that you have entered into the suffering of ordinary Salvadoran people in this conflict?