The peaceful life of Abbess Maria Santa Hilda of the Convent of Los Milagros is shattered by the death of Inez, the recently entered favorite daughter of the powerful Alcalde of Potosi. Believing this to be murder, not suicide, Abbess Maria buries Inez within the convent walls thus giving the local representative of the Inquisition, who has always claimed Hilda is too Protestant for his tastes, a reason for handing her over to New Spains Grand Inquisitor. Then another convent death occurs just when the Visitador General from the Viceroyalty of Peru arrives to punish Potosi for the falsification of its once pure silver coins.
Abbess Maria knowing that her accomplishments as a woman mean little to the men of the Inquisition, must uncover the causes of both deaths to save herself and the convent she so ably administers. Discoveries of corruption at the highest levels and forbidden love affairs make her task even more difficult.
In spite of the unrelenting restrictions on women and disregard of their views in Potosis male dominated culture, the abbess, some members of the convent, and two supposedly secluded upper class daughters play active roles in the plot. The convent is shown as a refuge and place for female leadership in administration where the abbess, after all, is acknowledged by the noble women and girls of her community as one who stands there in the place of Christ.
The economic, social and cultural life of this high Altiplano city sitting beneath a huge silver rich mountain is an important part of the story. Potosi was one of the 17th centurys greatest metropolises thanks to the riches of its vast silver mines. It dominated the economic life of the Americas, and by extension Spain, for nearly a century. Alfieri details the citys extravagant displays of wealth through their massive processions and festivals, rich clothing dripping with silver ornaments worn even by the servants, numerous churches, elegant Baroque style Spanish, Mestizo and Indian mixtures in its architecture, art and music. At the same time, the author describes a brawling, bawdy and violent place. Simmering beneath the surface are rivalries between the local Basque miners and Castillian workers, the Spanish code of honor which encouraged dueling and fights, and the mita, the conscripted labor of Indians who were brought to extract the silver from the mines and who died by the thousands from exposure, brutal labor, and mercury poisoning.
This book is so full of fascinating historical details that an authors note about resources would have been welcome. A map would have been useful as well.
Find photos of Potosi with excerpts from the book: http://www.annamariaalfieri.com/