“Hannah and Ariela” by Johnnie Bernhard

Providing a blueprint for a rich, fulfilling life after the loss of a loved one was not likely Johnnie Bernhard’s main intent in writing her latest novel, Hannah and Ariela, (TCU Press, 2022). Yet this compassionate novel set near the Texas border does exactly that.

Seventy-three-year-old Hannah Duran stars in this story, although the chapters rotate through many voices, providing a variety of perspectives and intriguing insights into how the various characters actually see each other. Bernhard’s extensive use of first-person narration using storyteller voices makes readers privy to unfiltered thoughts. Look out when those Southern good manners are stripped away—what vanities, what unkind thoughts lurk beneath the polite façade! The competition as each human being scrambles for his or her place in the world is laid bare.

As the novel opens, Hannah has just buried her beloved husband August—and her son and daughter-in-law are pressuring her to sell the isolated ranch she lives on. Hannah resists because she loves the land. Always has. Her career when she met her much-older husband was land manager, a pursuit that many townspeople viewed as unsuitable for a woman. She and August didn’t have close friends, and the couple friends they once had no longer include Hannah in outings after his death. Most widows and widowers face the reality. Even with the ranch to take care of, Hannah finds she has lots of time on her hands, “but time without someone you love is a burden.” She spends her days lost in memories of her husband and talking aloud to him though he is gone. She feels a “certain loneliness, knowing no one needs [her], when [her] entire life was spent nurturing and loving.” Her grown son has a family of his own and she refuses to become their responsibility. These sections of flashbacks to Hannah’s marriage move slowly at a literary novel’s pace.

Hannah’s life changes abruptly one night when she is driving back to the ranch and discovers the battered body of a young girl along the road. Ariela is a fourteen-year-old Mexican national who has escaped from cartel kidnappers. This discovery and subsequent rescue set in motion a chain of events that alter Hannah’s life in ways she never could have imagined. As a sheriff, a border agent, corrupt officials, and vicious cartel characters enter the scene, they bring guns, danger, and personal conflicts to the story. The rest of the novel zips along with adventure/thriller novel pacing. The moral codes of everyone involved are tested in the strongest way possible, separating the innocent from the guilty, the strong from the weak, the honest from the corrupt. In the end, our immigration system itself is on trial and found wanting.

Readers learn much about Ariela’s and her friend Katia’s life in Mexico—and much about the evil of the cartels, whose money buys the cooperation and silence of many citizens on both sides of the border. This worthy story puts a human face on the evils of human trafficking and the terrorism inflicted by the cartels on entire villages.

The land along the Texas/Mexico border becomes a character all its own as Bernhard aptly describes the arid climate with accurate detail derived from her own observations as a resident of that area. Delightful touches of magical realism—like the smell of roses filling the sanctuary of a church though there seems to be no source—make the story glow even brighter.

Ultimately, after meeting Ariela, Hannah rediscovers purpose in her life, purpose that derives from caring for others in need. She is an unforgettable character, admirable for her vulnerability, her strength, her unwavering sense of right and wrong, her compassion, and her resilience. Hannah and Ariela is a warm and hopeful novel, one that deserves to be widely read.

A former teacher and journalist, Johnnie Bernhard’s works have appeared in Houston Style Magazine, The Mississippi Press, The International Word Among Us, The Texas Review, and the Cowbird-NPR production on small town America essays. Bernhard’s first book, A Good Girl was shortlisted in the 2015 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Writing Competition, the 2017 Kindle Book Award for Literary Fiction, and the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Fiction of the Year Award. Her second novel, How We Came to Be, was a recipient of the Summerlee Book Prize. Her third novel, Sisters of the Undertow was chosen for discussion at the 2020 national AWP Conference, the Pat Conroy Literary Center of South Carolina, the Southern Book Festival/Humanities Tennessee, and Words and Music Literary Feast of New Orleans.

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