The Character of Names
THE EARTHQUAKE MACHINE is about a 14 year-old girl named Rhonda who goes on a river rafting trip in Big Bend National Park, which is on the border of Texas and Mexico. Rhonda runs away and swims across the Rio Grande River to Mexico. Soon after she climbs out of the river on the other side she encounters a peyote-addled bartender named Juan Diego, who helps her cut her hair and die it black so that she can “pass” as a Mexican boy. Juan Diego dubs her with the new name of “Angel.” Rhonda/Angel then sets off into Mexico looking for her family’s gardener Jésus.
So how did I pick the names for these three prominent characters in my novel? Well, I picked the name “Rhonda” for the protagonist because I don’t think it’s very pretty. I wanted Rhonda to have a name she didn’t really like so that she could later “shed” the name and become “Angel.”
I chose the name Angel for Rhonda to take on after her transformation because the novel is fantastical and I wanted her new named to be magical and beautiful, too. I also chose Angel because in English Angel is a girl’s name; and in Spanish it’s a boy’s name. Rhonda pretends to be a boy so that she can travel safely alone in Mexico, and so that she can live without the gendered expectations placed on her as a girl.
Juan Diego, the peyote-addled bartender who helps Rhonda (and dubs her with the moniker Angel) is named after the indigenous Mexican who, according to Mexican Catholic tradition, first saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe, in 1531. I thought it would be funny to have a kind, but drug-muddled man named after Juan Diego step in to help Rhonda. While Rhonda has been struggling with her spirituality and unable to articulate why she doesn’t feel totally comfortable praying to a male, Christian deity, Juan Diego tells her the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe and explains that many Mexicans pray to the Virgin of Guadalupe and ask Her for care and support. This piques Rhonda’s interest and makes her think there may be ways to think about God and prayer that don’t have to fit into the rigid male-centered religion she has learned about in church.
And last, I named Rhonda’s family’s gardener Jésus for a couple of reasons. First—of course—is the religious reference. Jésus has many Christ-like qualities. He’s humble and kind and gentle. But I also wanted it to be a little bit strange and edgy that a girl pretending to be a boy named Angel goes looking for a man named Jesus.
Also, when I was a little girl my grandmother hired a Mexican national named Jésus to take care of her yard, her house and my grandfather, who was sick with Alzheimer’s. My grandmother called my aunt and said, “You don’t have to worry about Dad anymore. Jesus has come to live with us.” It was so darkly funny and sad.
THE EARTHQUAKE MACHINE has a dark humor as well. It’s very iconoclastic and really looks into issues of both sexuality and spirituality through the lens of Rhonda’s adventures. Readers who love adventure stories with strong female protagonists will likely love this book!
The Earthquake Machine
The book every girl should read,
and every girl’s parents hope she’ll never read.
The Earthquake Machine tells the story of 14 year-old Rhonda. On the outside, everything looks perfect in Rhonda’s world, but at home Rhonda has to deal with a manipulative father who keeps her mentally ill mother hooked on pharmaceuticals. The only reliable person in Rhonda’s life is her family’s Mexican yardman, Jesús. But when the INS deports Jesús back to his home state of Oaxaca, Rhonda is left alone with her increasingly painful family situation.
Determined to find her friend Jésus, Rhonda seizes an opportunity to run away during a camping trip with friends to Big Bend National Park. She swims to the Mexican side of the Rio Grande and makes her way to the border town of Milagros, Mexico. There a peyote- addled bartender convinces her she won’t be safe traveling alone into the country’s interior. So with the bartender’s help, Rhonda cuts her hair and assumes the identity of a Mexican boy named Angel. She then sets off on a burro across the desert to look for Jesús. Thus begins a wild adventure that fulfills the longing of readers eager for a brave and brazen female protagonist.