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Posted 5/11/2005 8:42 PM     Updated 5/12/2005 9:55 AM
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'Zorro' gets behind the mask
TV watchers of a certain age will remember Zorro, an adventure series produced by Walt Disney in the 1950s. Starring Guy Williams in the title role, it was this reader's introduction to a legendary hero who outfoxed (zorro is Spanish for fox) his enemies and championed the underdog.

But the TV show, as well as numerous movies about Zorro, have never dealt with the childhood of Don Diego de la Vega, the man who would don a cape and mask to become the fictional fighter of injustice in California nearly 200 years ago. It is this part of Diego's life that is imagined in Isabel Allende's new novel.

Just as the film The Motorcycle Diaries focused on how the real-life Ernesto "Che" Guevara evolved into a revolutionary fighter for the disenfranchised in Latin America in the 20th century, Zorro tells of how the fictional Diego, born in California in the late 18th century and educated in Spain, returns to the pueblo of Los Angeles to anonymously challenge the Spanish rulers' abuse of indigenous people.

 About the book

Allende's Zorro is wonderfully crafted. It is saturated in the history of what would become the most populous state in the USA. Allende recounts the region's growing pains as the native populations are pushed off the land and forced by the Spanish-ruled Catholic Church to become Christians. She richly imagines Diego's parents: his father, Alejandro de la Vega, a Spanish landowner, and his mother, Toypurnia, a Shoshone Indian warrior.

Allende will delight readers who are familiar with Diego, his beloved companion, Bernardo, and Zorro's faithful black steed, Tornado. The author writes how Bernardo and Diego grew up together and how Bernardo became mute after a horrifying childhood trauma. She also writes how Diego became an accomplished swordsman under the tutelage of his father and a skilled Spanish fencing instructor named Manuel Escalante.

In Barcelona, when Diego wants to fight a duel to protect Bernardo's honor, Escalante asks the teenager: "Do you truly believe that life is fair, Señor de la Vega?" To which de la Vega responds: "No, maestro, but I plan to do everything in my power to make it so."

True to her signature use of magical realism, Allende combines elements of mysticism, Indian folklore and ancient traditions to explain how the fox came to be Diego's totem and spiritual guide.

Zorro succeeds because of the author's desire to show that every man (and, as readers will discover, every woman) can fight for justice if he has the determination.

Allende, who already is celebrated for her gift of storytelling in such best sellers as Daughter of Fortune, The House of Spirits and Eva Luna, gives Zorro the feel of a folk or fairy tale with her ability to draw readers in, hold their attention and keep the story moving at an exciting pace. The book has a suspenseful air, and it's not until the end that the novel's unidentified narrator is unmasked.

Moreover, Allende's imaginative story is sure to feed the frenzy for everything Zorro. Her well-timed novel precedes the October film release of The Legend of Zorro, starring Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, the sequel to 1998's The Mask of Zorro.

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