Zorro! When I was a kid, living in north Jersey and imbued with the values of American pop culture, I would go to the Roky Theater to watch the Saturday-afternoon serials about the adventures of this masked swordsman with a black cape who rode his fine horse along dusty trails and always used his lightning bladework and his lashing whip on the side of justice and the maltreated.
Back then I had no clue about early California or romantic Spain, where this hero found his origins. To me, Zorro seemed like Robin Hood in a smartly cut black suit and mask, and I remained blissfully ignorant of his heritage. Not even the Anthony Hopkins/Catherine Zeta-Jones/Antonio Banderas movie of a few years ago made much of a dent in my anti-knowledge.
The latest work of fiction by ever-popular Isabel Allende tries to cure such cultural ignorance. Her Zorro takes us back to early 19th-century California and Spain, and spurs to life the legendary romantic hero.
"Let us begin at the beginning," says the narrator at the opening of the first chapter, "at an event without which Diego de la Vega would not have been born." She then goes on -- and no harm to you, dear reader, to let you know that the narrator is a woman -- to fill us in on the Spanish conquest of California and the development in particular of a mission in Monterey where Alejandro de la Vega, a young Spaniard who travels from Mexico City in the entourage of the wealthy new Spanish governor and his wife, falls in love with a rebellious young Shoshone woman.
Their child, Diego, grows up in the company of an Indian boy, whom he regards as his brother, and becomes steeped in the lore of old California and okahue -- honor, justice, respect, dignity and courage, the positive values of the indigenous peoples -- before his father ships him (and his Indian companion) off to Barcelona for an Old World education.
There, in the midst of the struggle between the Napoleonic occupiers and Spanish resistance fighters, he learns a great deal about politics, war and love -- and becomes initiated into a secret Spanish society dedicated to the rights of the underdog. Already imbued with okahue, adolescent Diego transforms himself, with the help of his Castilian fencing master, into Zorro, the sword-wielding, whip-slashing Fox, and leads successful forays against the forces of reaction.
He also falls madly in love and makes an enemy for life in Rafael Moncada, his rival for the hand of the beautiful Juliana de Romeu, daughter of his Barcelona patron.
From then on his adventures rise to new heights as the action proceeds across northern Spain and then back to the New World -- to the Caribbean, New Orleans and California again -- where, pursued by Moncada and dedicated to the struggle against injustice, he writes his own story in sweat, blood and tears, and signs it with the neatly zigzag letter that he marks with his sword in the flesh of his enemies: Z, for Zorro!
Allende's narrator, who turns out to have a special (and vested) interest in Diego/Zorro, allows that she sometimes veers from the facts. Allende seems to have followed this path herself, creating a lively and fascinating version of the Zorro story, with enough verve and swash to keep the reader with her all the way. If it seems a little less vibrant than those childhood Saturday-afternoon movie serials I watched in New Jersey, it could be that the entire world has changed a great deal since then.
Alan Cheuse is a book commentator for NPR, a writing teacher and an author. He wrote this review for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.