In Luck Is Just the Beginning, Celeste León draws on the true story of her father. Ramón León is a young man living in a village in Puerto Rico towards the end of World War II when he decides one day to play the lottery. In fact he has a premonition so strong he spends his savings on a whole page of tickets. Generally in fiction you would assume this was a key sign that everything was about to go very wrong. However, Ramón wins.
For Ramón it means he will be able to fulfil his dream of going to college in Michigan and becoming a dentist. The genesis of his dream is that as a young boy he became the protégé of Doctor Roberts, an American dentist who was an aid worker in the village. Ramón helped him with his patients, learnt all he could from him and saw the impact that his work had on the quality of life in his community. When Doctor Roberts died, Ramón pledged that he would follow his example.
Ramón sets out to pursue his dream, but he encounters a number of obstacles along the way. His good fortune has upset the dynamics of his close-knit community. His brother feels resentment. Everyone has a hard luck story and wants him to help them. Trujillo, a man with significant local business interests, feels cheated due to the gambler’s fallacy – he believes the win should have been his, because the number that came up was one that he usually bought.
Trujillo sets out to make life difficult for Ramón and his family. Ramón’s mother and brother both own local businesses and he persuades many in the community to boycott them. He also threatens violence to Ramón and his girlfriend. Ramón responds by turning the other cheek and befriending Trujillo’s young son, which inflames the situation more.
Ramón also finds himself suddenly in a different social circle. His new-found wealth means he is allowed to court Elsie, the daughter of the local police chief, and falls under the spell of Antonio, an affluent young man who has already been to college in the US.
The novel is interesting in its depiction of the place and time, and the complex relationships in the village. Ramón’s mother, Chepa, is particularly striking – as well as running her shop she provides informal medical care and acts as the midwife to the village. She is a strong character who people turn to for advice, as well as someone who has a profound sense of belief and even claims to have psychic or intuitive powers. It seems she was as much of an example to Ramón as Doctor Roberts.
I like the way that there are hints of the world beyond the village, but that these are seen through the point of view of Ramón who, at this age and with limited experience, struggles with the implications. There are his brother’s insights about the racism he experienced in the army, and his conflict with a German university lecturer.
The novel has the quality of a fable. Ramón’s assertion of a premonition about the win is taken at face value. The characters are easily identifiable as good or bad and there are no major surprises in the reversals which Ramón encounters. There are moments that hint at greater ambiguity, such as when Ramón and Trujillo, his nemesis, discuss the music of Mozart and his rivalry with Salieri.
There is also some nice observation when Ramón attends a class to improve his English at the local university. Because of the GI Bill the only class with vacancies is devoted to the novels of Charles Dickens. Ramón’s incomprehension provides some nice comic moments but then as his English improves he gleans insights into his own situation from his reading of Great Expectations.
Ramón is quietly heroic. Even when he makes mistakes he is quick to acknowledge them. He berates himself for his one extravagance on receiving the money. He is strongly rooted in his family and his community and this reinforces his courage as he is about to move into a world very different from where he grew up.
I received a copy of Luck Is Just the Beginning from the author.
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Enjoyed this? Read Celeste’s guest post on how she came to write Luck Is Just the Beginning