“On Lighthouses” presents a brief nonfiction foray into Barrera’s fascination with the lighthouse, a beacon that many rarely notice or see only in movies. The lighthouse is an architectural character that sits on the periphery of an ocean scene or houses a pressed actor rushing to its pinnacle to guide vessels to safety with the lighthouse’s illumination. Instead, Barrera (as translated by Christina MacSweeney) crafts brief histories of lighthouses, the author’s visits to some, and their impact on life, literature and popular culture.
Barrera takes some turns that a reader might expect, by chronicling the first lighthouses and her encounters with lighthouses as well. Some of the lighthouses featured include the historic landmark Jeffrey’s Hook on the Hudson, also known as the “Little Red Lighthouse,” which was saved from demolition by the enduring popularity of a 1942 children’s book, “The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge” by Hildegarde Swift. Barrera writes about the Goury lighthouse in France, the Tapia de Casariego lighthouse in Asturias, Spain, and the Montauk Point lighthouse visited by President George Washington, celebrated by Walt Whitman in verse, and in Max Frisch’s novel “Montauk.”
By focusing on a separate lighthouse in each short chapter, we get to travel with Barrera to these towers that have done more than save ships on the horizon. We get to see how lighthouses are almost mythic in their presence and offer an insight into a past before sonar or the ability to track ships online. There is a bit of wistfulness, too. That romantic notion of the salt air wafting past a lighthouse’s windows or a catwalk feels palpable here, and what it means to have a simple, solitary life where someone is focused on one job of signaling to vessels on their paths. If you want to read a short nonfiction book with interesting facts and vignettes about lighthouses, this book has a clear and entertaining focus on its subject, but Barrera also sets a sensual background that makes readers understand why these structures can dominate and set a tone, like the lighthouse in Ingmar Bergman’s “Shame.”
Jazmina Barrera will be in conversation with Eula Biss online with Pilsen Community Books on May 12 at 7pm.
By Jazmina Barrera
Two Lines Press, 183 pages
Newcity Lit Editor Tara Betts is the author of “Break the Habit” and “Arc & Hue.” Her interviews and features have appeared in publications such as Hello Giggles, Mosaic Magazine, NYLON, The Source, Sixty Inches from Center, and Poetry magazine. She also hosts author chats at the Seminary Co-Op bookstores in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood.