Blake Bailey's fast-paced romantic adventure Zapatista follows Peter, an American writer who has traveled to Mexico to work, as he is kidnapped (or rescued?) by a band of Zapatista rebels who are fleeing before government troops. The rebels promise to drop him off in a nearby town, but at loose ends because of a failed romance and is intrigued by their manner and their cause, he talks the leader of the band into allowing him to travel with them. Circumstances make it impossible for the guerillas to get Peter to the safety of the town, so the leader, an Indian man named Kuk, reluctantly agrees that he can stay with them.
In the days that follow, Peter learns more about the Zapatista cause and becomes friends with many of the Indian fighters. He proves his bravery by helping them in several battles, and works out a plan with another writer, a journalist, to get the Zapatistas coverage in the international press. Finally, the small band of soldiers is able to make connections with a larger contingent, and they are able to get Peter to a town where he can get a boat ticket, allowing him to travel to a city with an airport. He plans to leave the country.
Once he arrives in the city of Fotera, however, events take a bizarre turn for the worse, and he is forced to choose once again between his own safety and the cause of the Indians. When he meets the lovely Lxil, an Indian woman who has agreed to take him to Belize City by boat, his decision becomes easy. She is in danger, and he must help her, no matter what.
Zapatista is loosely based on the 1994 Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico. Some of the events and characters in the book are real, and Bailey provides a good, basic description of the reasons behind the rebellion. Although there is not a great deal of historical information, the book may pique reader’s interest and inspire them to learn more about the cause, which continues to garner headlines both in Mexico and abroad. Bailey’s publicity materials state, in fact, that part of the proceeds from the sale of this book will be used to aid the Zapatistas in their struggle for Native rights.
The main focus of the story, though, is on Peter and his experiences. He loses one girlfriend, writes a manuscript (which is accidentally burned when the soldiers attack his camp in pursuit of the Indians), and finds a sense of purpose in the Zapatista cause. He finds another love interest, a strong woman who shares his passion for the uprising, and enjoys happiness -- for a while, at least. He is an interesting and overall appealing character, although his motivations are not really described in great detail, and there is some action in the book that seems extemporaneous to the main story line; for instance, a fishing trip which does not tie in with any other scenes of the book occupies three whole pages.
The mysterious and abrupt ending of the novel may leave some readers exasperated, as well, and the occasional appearance of the shaman/goddess Itzamana is a bit contrived. Her divine intervention in times of crisis is not wholly believable, and the book is not dreamy enough in other areas for her presence in its pages to be passed of as magical realism. However, despite these foibles, Zapatista is a promising effort from a writer worth watching.