Jillian in the Borderlands

Publication Date: October 2020


Participating in the 2024 PopSugar reading challenge? Read Jillian in the Borderlands  for prompt number 35: a book with magical realism.

Jillian Guzmán, who is nine years old at the beginning of the book, communicates through drawings rather than speech as she travels with her mother, Angie O’Malley, throughout the borderlands of Arizona and northwestern Mexico. Later she creates survival maps for border crossers and paints murals at the Casa de los Olvidados, a refuge in Sonora run by the traditional healer Juana of God.

These darkly funny tales, focusing on Mexican-American, Euro-American, and Mexican characters, feature visionary experiences, ghosts, faith healers, a deer’s head that speaks, a dog who channels spirits of the dead—and a young woman whose drawings begin to create realities instead of just reflecting them.


In this lush and imaginative exploration of what makes us human, Alvarado conjures the twin energies of spirit and body, finding, in the face of political violence and its foul counterparts, our most urgent reasons for action and hope. While these are called dark tales, I find them genuinely uplifting, as Alvarado’s storytelling allows us access to the nexus for joy, in opposition.
–Aurelie Sheehan

With stunning buoyancy, these linked stories build a world of hope and magic, while challenging the hardships humans so often create for themselves, in unison, in love and loss. Alvarado has crafted a world one wants to sink into, full of empathy, sly humor, beauty and charm, while also looking directly at the question of what it means to be human in a world of humans, in spirit and body, roaming the margins together. 
–Monica Drake

With the ecstatic knowledge of an ancient curandera and the playful, storytelling prowess of a child, Alvarado travels great distances, bears witness, presages problems, and intuits solutions. She isn’t just at the forefront of white writers writing about race, she’s at the forefront of people writing about what it means to be human and how we might survive our own dangerous shortcomings. Masterful and original, her voice has been here since the before-time; in a world that needs healing and vision more than ever, it would behoove us all to listen.–Jennifer Tseng

Relentlessly musical, heart-twisting, and haunted by the supernatural, Jillian in the Borderlands is a masterpiece of contemporary fabulist fiction. Told in a kaleidoscopic set of shifting points of view, these stories take readers to boundaries both geographic and metaphorical: between sickness and health, wonder and horror, the past and the present. “Women are always searching among the dead and the wounded,” observes the collection’s titular character. As the lives of constellating characters make clear, however, what women find is so much more complicated.
–Allegra Hyde

Beth Alvarado reads for the Black Lawrence Press Virtual Reading Series

About the Author

© Hannah O'Leary

Beth Alvarado

Beth Alvarado, who has written extensively about her experiences as a Euro-American woman marrying into a Mexican-American family, has spent most of her life in Arizona. Her most recent book, Anxious Attachments, was a finalist for the 2020 Oregon Book Awards and was long-listed for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Art of the Essay Award. She’s also the author of Anthropologies: A Family Memoir and the short story collection Not a Matter of Love. She now lives in Bend, Oregon, where she is core faculty at OSU-Cascades Low Residency MFA Program.

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