This unauthorized biography of the life and art of the notable Chilean folklorist and visual artist, Violeta Parra, provides valuable insights into the emotionally troubled existence of one of the most gifted South Americans of the past century. The book traces her life from when she was born in the small town of San Carlos in the province of Ñuble in southern Chile through her growing up in poverty, discusses her somewhat checkered rise to fame, and ends with her suicide at the age of 49 in February 1967. A political activist, Parra was involved in the progressive movement and the Socialist Party of Chile. Despite being courted by the academic establishment at various stages in her career, she was also disparaged by the politically and socially elite, from whom she all too often alienated herself.
Parra's distinctive voice and concern with wishing to immortalize the cultural heritage of the often landless Chilean peasantry ensured her a unique place in the history of her nation. Despite some fraternization with North American beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and the exhibition of her art at the Louvre (with Parra being the first Latin American to have a solo exhibit at the august establishment), her primary commitment lay in the upliftment of her own people and in the creation of a folkloric vision. In fact, this is what first drew Karen Kerschen to write about her. As Kerschen says, "I discovered that Violeta's story far exceeded her legend." In addition to recording the traditional customs of her native countrymen for posterity, for which purpose she travelled extensively throughout her country to gain first-hand access to primary sources of such culture, Parra also eloquently described the suffering of the urban poor. Her lack of formal schooling and training in no way hindered her transposing the truth of what she found into both aural and visual evidence of the experiences of the poorest of the poor--proof that financial impoverishment does not rob the people of their soul.
Kerschen's biography is a modest and unassuming tale of a woman whose achievements have been all too little written about so far. The intertwining of Parra's personal and social history with the evolution of her music and art is told in intimate detail, leaving none of the more negative aspects of the artist out, and certainly she was a most troubled and, at times, pugnacious person. However, that her story deserves to be told is a certainty, with Kerschen's telling of it coming none too soon. For anyone interested in the role of women in the evolution of society and art, Violeta Parra: By the Whim of the Wind is a worthwhile investment. [Reviewer for BookPleasures.com]