Lorenzo Mediano's The Frost on His Shoulders is a tight little masterpiece, told by an unnamed rural schoolteacher who begins by assuring us that the half column of print buried deep in the newspaper was wrong about the tragedy that happened in November 1934, in a very small, unimportant village in the Spanish Pyrenees, often confused with other villages. Despite police reports and more than 200 contradictory pages in a month of gathering evidence, only the teacher knows what really happened, because he witnessed it unfolding. "Of course, I might be wrong," he qualifies, "no one ever really knows for sure what dwells in men's hearts." He then recounts with disarming candor what he saw and heard, admitting what he doesn't know--the perfect narrator, the conscience of the village.
Ramón Gallar is a bright, handsome boy with blue eyes, a shepherd since he was eight, who loves reading and borrows books from the schoolteacher. He falls in love with Alba, the daughter of wealthy Don Mariano, the most powerful man in the mountains. Ramón works long, exhausting hours, saving the pittance he earns for a life with her. It's a harsh time, when people labor for 12 hours a day and sleep eight men to a haystack. Those who can't take it die young.
Scornfully rejected by the girl's father, Ramón defies Don Mariano, swearing that he will return with money, and becomes the legendary smuggler known as the Desperado, working the border into France. There's a folkloric, larger-than-life quality to Mediano's style of narration, like a tale told so often everyone knows it by heart--unadorned and straightforward, audience-pleasing, pure storytelling as the epic showdown between Ramón and Don Mariano draws near.
Laced with the fears and beliefs of a brutal mountain world, the novel builds relentlessly to an unexpectedly horrifying ending in which the worst of human nature seems to triumph. Every twist and turn in the story is crucial, however, and Mediano's melancholy schoolteacher brings it to a perfect surprise ending, confirming The Frost on His Shoulders as an old-fashioned folktale of forbidden love told with genuine suspense, unabashed enthusiasm for the genre and breathtaking control. --Nick DiMartino
Shelf Talker: A perfectly crafted tale of forbidden love in a Spanish mountain village in the 1930s, with tight prose that takes on a larger-than-life aura.