Reyna Grande’s new novel about romance during the Mexican-American War


Reyna Grande’s third novel, “A Ballad of Love and Glory”, is a page-turner twofer – part romance, part war story – set during the Mexican-American War. It’s loosely based on the life of a soldier named John Riley, who’s a historical novelist’s dream subject: An important figure whose story is known in broad strokes, but with plenty of gaps to fill in.

For instance, it’s a fact that Riley was an Irishman who, like many Europeans, served as a U.S. soldier in the 1840s in the fight against Mexico along the Rio Grande River. He left Ireland to escape privation there, but as Grande shows, nativist sentiment meant many foreign soldiers absorbed physical and verbal abuse. The “sauerkrauts” and “potato heads” are humiliated, branded, and murdered.

“A Ballad of Love and Glory,” by Reyna Grande.
“A Ballad of Love and Glory,” by Reyna Grande.

On the eve of the war in 1846, John crosses the river and joins the Mexican forces, who promise more honorable duties, better pay and a sympathetic Catholic country. Mexico’s dream of independence, he believes, echoes his homeland’s. Soon he leads a group of soldiers called Saint Patrick’s Battalion from Matamoros to Mexico City in a noble but ultimately failed fight to keep Mexican territory.- ADVERTISEMENT -

That’s all true – the “San Patricios” are honored annually in Mexico on St. Patrick’s Day. But because little is known about John’s personal life, Grande is free to add a few twists. Chief among them is Ximena, a healer and widow of a Mexican soldier. She’s skeptical of war in general and of Riley’s cohort in particular: “Carnage and bloodshed, mutilation and suffering, all for fighting a war that isn’t even theirs to fight,” she thinks.

But naturally, the pair soon connect, both politically and intimately. If their romance is predictable, Grande is alert to numerous complications their relationship surfaces. Some are ethical (Riley has a wife back in Ireland), and some involve Ximena’s struggle to reconcile her hope for freedom with macho notions of heroism that killed her husband. And she seethes at Mexico’s factionalized politics, exemplified by General Santa Anna, a callow opportunist she’s obliged to care for.