Isabel Allende Has A Message: History Repeats Itself

In her new novel, “The Wind Knows My Name,” the prolific author introduces characters who narrowly survive real-life events.


If the measure of a civilization is the way in which it cares for its most vulnerable, by most standards, ours isn’t doing too well.

Consider the record number of family separations at the U.S. border under President Donald J. Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy; as of February 2023, on the second anniversary of the creation of President Biden’s Family Reunification Task Force, close to 1,000 children still remained separated from their families.

This travesty and tragedy is the engine of Isabel Allende’s new novel, “The Wind Knows My Name.” The deliberate cruelty of the bureaucracies that enforce the separations, and the enduring psychic wounds these ruptures inflict on children, are the novel’s foundation and its psychological backbone.

All of the characters in this timely, provocative story carry the weight of painful history, and their lives converge near the end of the book.

Samuel Adler is a 5-year-old Jewish boy in Vienna on Nov. 9, 1938, Kristallnacht. Although his parents, Rudolph and Rachel, have felt slowly encroaching dread over the past few years — “the stench of fear, like rust and rotting garbage” — they are not prepared for the shocking explosion of Nazi violence and destruction.

These first few scenes are a vivid depiction of the moment, the hot flame of terror and chaos, followed by Rachel’s increasingly desperate attempts to save her family and her eventual realization that she must send her only child on a Kindertransport train to England.

Samuel’s life is marked by this trauma. He grows up reserved and remote, and he eventually marries a woman who is vivacious and joyful enough for both of them. Samuel disappears from the novel for a while, but his heart beats underneath the other characters and story lines.

Leticia is a child survivor like Samuel, but of the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador in 1981. After her village is destroyed and most of her family is murdered, she endures a brutal border crossing with her father. “She remembered little from her childhood before the border crossing, just the smell of the wood-burning stove, the dense vegetation, the taste of ripe corn, the chorus of birds, warm tortillas for breakfast, her grandmother’s prayers, her brothers’ and sisters’ cries and laughter,” Allende writes. In other words, Leticia yearns for a life that’s gone.

Next on the timeline is Selena Durán, tireless champion of refugees, particularly families separated at the border. She pleads for help from a powerful law firm looking to improve its image. In the process, she wins over Frank Angileri, the firm’s hotshot young attorney.

Frank most likely stands in for the reader who might not have believed the situation at the border was so terrible, or who simply wasn’t paying enough attention. Until he meets Selena, Frank is busy representing “a business magnate close to the president, accused of trafficking minors, embezzlement of public funds and money laundering.”

Finally, Allende introduces Anita Díaz, a precocious blind girl separated from her mother after being denied legal entry to the United States. Frank and Selena will try to reunite the pair.

Telling a story that is rooted so deeply in political events can be a difficult balancing act; an author walks a fine line between writing immersive fiction and explaining historical and social context. “The Wind Knows My Name” contains little of the magic that defined Allende’s earlier novels. Instead, she turns her focus to the brutal details of government-sponsored violence and asks her reader to look closely at the devastation. Allende draws a straight line from Nazi Germany to modern-day atrocities — not because the specifics are the same, but because the damage is.

As these characters come together in an emotionally satisfying arc, the solution turns out to be the kindness of strangers who become family. That, at least, is the story Allende is telling. In the real world, the solution is to protect the vulnerable by not tearing families apart in the first place — a less dramatic story, but a much preferable reality.