The Fifth Sun


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Winner of the 2003 Mármol Prize for Latina/o First Fiction.

The Fifth Sun is an inspiring story of an immigrant who struggles valiantly for a better life for herself and her family. The young Mexican woman, Mercedes, leaves her village to work as a housemaid in New Orleans. This fast-paced novel takes her through her adventures in New Orleans, her marriage, her struggle to raise her children, her deportation, and her attempt to re-cross the river and be reunited with her children.

About the Author:

Mary Helen Lagasse

Mary Helen Lagasse is a native New Orleanian. She was educated in the parochial schools of the city, received her BA from Tulane University in 1978, and "between writing" is working toward an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of New Orleans. Mary Helen is bilingual, American by birth, Latina by heritage, and feels that she has had the best of both worlds in her upbringing.

While earning her degree at Tulane, she concurrently attended evening classes, worked as a teller and safety deposit vault clerk at a local bank, and taught English Literature at private schools in Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans. She won first place in a statewide contest for her short story, "Survival of the Species," published in the 1987 edition of Ellipses, the literary magazine of UNO.

Throughout this time, Mary Helen worked as a freelance writer. Her stories have appeared in all major publications in and around the New Orleans metropolitan community--The Vieux Carre Courier, the New Orleans Times Picayune, Dixie Roto Magazine, The Clarion Herald, Gambit, and New Orleans Magazine. Her articles ran the gamut of political, social, cultural, and "human interest" issues--in-depth interviews with governors, senators, movers and shakers of industry--specifically oilmen in the boon days--slumlords, artists and craftsmen; Black Muslims, lifers doing time at Angola Prison, writers (one, Shirley Ann Grau, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The House on Coliseum Street), old New Orleans neighborhoods, hot air balloons and WWII bi-planes in which she flew. Her series of articles on the abominably perilous conditions of Audubon Park Zoo and the plight of the animals garnered public and federal governmental attention and reform. The wide diversity of topics fired her imagination and enhanced her wealth of knowledge and experience that she has expressed in her craft.

In the last couple of years, she has given up all professional occupations to devote herself entirely to her writing. She has completed two novels, The Fifth Sun and The Heart of the Channel, and has a work-in-progress based on the construction of the 1830's construction of New Basin Canal in New

and died under harrowing conditions. The working title of this manuscript is Bridget Fury. She is also at work on a manuscript dealing with the dynamics of family life: the revelations and the corrosive affects following the death of the paterfamilias.

Mary Helen has been an active participant in Words & Music Literary Conference held in New Orleans every December. She has been appointed an Executive Board member of The Faulkner Society, sponsor of the W&M conference and a number of literary events throughout the year. She is well acquainted with the literary community in New Orleans, among them, Pulitzer Prize winners  and other notable authors who are invited to read and instruct at the literary functions sponsored by the Faulkner Society. She is an avid supporter of a number of animal rights organizations.

Mary Helen Lagasse is married, has two grown sons, and lives with her husband, Will, in Metairie--a stone's throw from the heart of New Orleans.

Book Reviews

VoceroNews/New Orleans :  4/9/04  "[This] prize-winning novel gripes you from the first paragraph .. . Mary Helen Lagasse's words communicate; they get under the skin to assure us that Mercedes--her Mercedes--is alive on every page, in every evocation..." (translated from the Spanish)

N. O. Times-Picayune: 4/11/04  "Lagasse not only tells an epic story of courage and the ongoing struggle to achieve spiritual wholeness, she has the epic storyteller's sense of pace and understands the conflict between the human will and the fates."  (Mary McKay chairwoman Loyola University English Dept.)

The Library Journal: 4/15/24) "Lagasse recalls the socially realistic novels of John Steinbeck and Edward Dahlberg with this stark unadorned prose portrait. Recommended for all large fiction collections and libraries serving Hispanic communities . . ."

The Chattanoogan: 4/24/04 "Lagasse has woven a tale of the American story. It may not be the story you’re used to hearing, but is one you should read. In 336 pages, Mercedes suffers a series of ups and downs, decisions and indecisions, and is ultimately transformed from a helpless girl into a heroine whose life isn’t to be pitied or despised, but honored. When you’re ready to honor Mercedes, grab your copy of The Fifth Sun."

The Los Angeles Times 4/29/04)  "Lagasse's writing is vibrant with a mélange of New Orleans and Mexican zest. . . . The Fifth Sun illuminates in piquant, visceral terms, the struggle of humankind to achieve spiritual growth amid stultifying conditions."

LaPrensa/New Orleans:  05/04 "Lagasse paints a moving portrait of early 20th century Mexican immigrants and the tough choices they face to protect their family, lives, and dignity."

Booklist : 05/04 " Lagasse's engaging debut novel is packed with period details and Mexican folklore. This is a welcome addition to the increasingly popular genre of immigration fiction, which can serve as a powerful antidote for immigration paranoia."

Publishers Weekly (5/14/04) cited in "It-List" of English-language Latino authors.

BookViews:  07/ 2004  "This fast paced novel accurately and movingly reflects the Mexican-American experience and does so through a character you will root for from beginning to end."

Hartford Courant : 8/8/04 " A story of almost insurmountable challenges some immigrants face in their struggle to escape poverty and the soul-destroying indignity  it brings . . . It is a story of what it takes to move beyond humiliation and heartbreak to create a sense of home."

Excelsior/Mexico City:  8/04 - (as quoted from EFE, "world's 3rd largest news service")  "In her sophisticated writing, at  once clear and accessible, Lagasse narrates the immigrant experience, giving voice to those who risk their lives crossing the frontier in search of a better life . . . ." 

 Wilson County News (TX) : 8/25/04 "The Fifth Sun reveals the depths of the Mexican-American immigrant experience, and by doing so, it renders a fresh perspective on the resilience of the human spirit. .. the novel is full of exquisite detail that shows what superb control Lagasse has over the English language."

 SemanaNews/ Houston: 8/29/04 " In her novel Mary Helen Lagasse writes about women of power and the dream of all immigrants who  cross the border in search of a better future." (Translated from the Spanish)

 NewPages (3/20/04) "The Fifth Sun is a strong novel. Lagasse paints a powerful picture of Immigration during the Depression . . . Definitely recommended reading."

 Multicultural Review (10/01/04) The Fifth Sun " ...lyrically written; a beautifully webbed story about survival, inner strength, and destiny; a moving tale of a woman's struggle and her hope for a life in which all elements are in balance: a family rejoined and a daughter who knows no borders but her own."

 The Bloomsbury Review (Nov/Dec 2004 issue): "Mercedes is a contrast of timidity and ferocity, obedience and toughness . . . Throughout this beautifully told tale we are treated to wonderful characters who alternately enrich, hinder and help move the lives of Mercedes and Jesse. . .  [their story] is a reminder that there is beauty and love to be found, even in hard lines lived under nearly impossible circumstances." 

 New Orleans Times-Picayune (12/26/04): Susan Larson, Book Editor, cited The  Fifth Sun  "one of year's best debut novel of 2004" critic: "A marvelous book . . .The most disconcerting thing, maybe the only disconcerting thing, about this book is that as I read, I couldn't help thinking 'this is a FIRST novel'---It's just too good . . ."

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