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Saving the World

a novel
by Julia Alvarez
(Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, April 2006)

First off, where do I get off naming my novel, Saving the World! What can I tell you? I'm not feeling very optimistic as to where we are headed as a human family. But as the Seamus Heaney poem says, hope and history can sometimes be made to "rhyme."

Saving the World by Julia Alvarez

This novel is about two women, one contemporary and one historical, who want desperately for this rhyme to happen. The historical story I came upon while doing research for my novel In the Name of Salomé. A footnote in a history book I was reading caught my eye: due to the occupation of the colony of Santo Domingo by the French, the 1804 Spanish smallpox expedition going around the world with the newly discovered vaccine did not make a stop there. This was the first world-wide effort to eradicate a deadly disease. Back then, travel was slow, on ships. There was no refrigeration, so the only way to keep the vaccine alive was through carriers, sequentially vaccinated. The carriers were, for the most part, orphan boys. The first group of 22 boys, between the ages of three and nine, came from an orphanage in Spain, and here's an incredible detail for a novelist to come upon: the rectoress of the orphanage went along to take care of them. Nothing is known about her except her name, Doña Isabel, her surname variously misspelled.


The second story in the novel is about Alma, a contemporary writer undergoing her own dark night of the soul. Alma has lost faith in writing, lost faith in most things. She is married to a wonderful man, whom she dearly loves, and that saves her from total despair. Her husband, who has a job at an international aid consulting firm, finds himself mixed up with an AIDS clinic (our 21st century epidemic) in a third world country where a pharmaceutical company is testing a new vaccine. These two stories, seemingly so different, begin to "speak" to each other, and I hope there is, if not a full rhyme, then a sort of half rhyme: a hope that stories can make a difference in a world that increasingly seems beyond any kind of redemption.

Algonquin put together some really terrific questions about the novel, several of which I'm not sure I can answer! Click for the Book Group Guide. I've also included a list of materials which were invaluable to me in researching this novel, including books and articles about the smallpox expedition. Click for Further Reading: Balmis Expedition.

Saving the World by Julia Alvarez
see this book on
hardcover  *  paperback
audio cd
en español: paperback
or you may be able to get an
autographed copy at
Middlebury College Bookstore
or Vermont Book Shop

As one of my web-ñapas I shared Saving the Writer: a piece about writing Saving the World.

Several interviews have appeared around the publication of Saving the World. Here are the links:

    in Identity Theory
    on Powell's Books website
    on Nancy Pearl's Book Lust program for Seattle Channel

There's also a Book Guide at


More Books by Julia Alvarez

The Best Gift of All: The Legend of La Vieja Belén/El mejor regalo del mundo: la leyenda de La Vieja Belén
The Best Gift of All:
The Legend of
La Vieja Belén/
El mejor regalo del mundo:
la leyenda de
La Vieja Belén
Once Upon A Quinceañera: Coming of Age in the USA by Julia Alvarez
Once Upon A Quinceañera
How the García Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez
How the García Girls Lost Their Accents

Autographed Books by Julia Alvarez

Would you like a signed -- or personalized -- copy of one of Julia's books? Simply call or email one of her two local bookstores -- or stop in for a visit.

Vermont Book Shop
38 Main Street, Middlebury, Vermont

Middlebury College Store
58 Hepburn Road, Middlebury, Vermont
Contact Georgia Best

And, of course, Julia would love to see you at one of her upcoming appearances. To see if she will be in your town, check her calendar.


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