While the Frente Sandinista in Nicaragua remains mired in profound crises of legitimacy and identity, the symbol of Sandino continues to carry enormous resonance across the country, and not just among party stalwarts. Professional academics, both native and foreign, also continue to find in this tragic and heroic figure much of interest and value, judging from the recent bumper crop in the field of Sandino studies (at least seven book-length works since 1993: two books by Nicaraguans [Alejandro Bendaña and Oscar-René Vargas], two by Europeans [Wünderich and Michelle Dospital], and three United States dissertations [Michael Schroeder, Richard Grossman, and David Brooks]).

Wünderich’s work stands among the best of these. This is the German historian’s second book on Sandino (the first focused on the Atlantic Coast), and a very fine piece of scholarship that should prove of interest to specialists and general readers alike. In some ways a conventional biography—following the thread of an individual’s life by beginning at birth, ending at death, and tarrying at all the big events in between—the study also offers an enriched understanding of the historical contexts out of which Sandino and his rebellion emerged. This attention to context, combined with broad familiarity with the published literature, a consistently judicious tone, and a willingness to ask tough (and sometimes new) questions—and to offer unfashionable answers—make this a welcome and substantial contribution to existing treatments of a well-trod subject.

Highlighting the book’s strengths suggests its limitations. As a synthetic portrait based on published literatures and a substantial corpus of primary sources, the book touches on most every aspect of the subject hitherto treated by historians. Readers will find crisp, informed surveys of the 1926-27 civil war; the formation of Sandino’s Defending Army; the central sociopolitical dynamics and key events of the rebellion in the Segovias and Atlantic Coast; Sandino’s failed journey to Mexico and split with the communists and Faribundo Martí; the United States withdrawal, rebel disarmament, and establishment of the Río Coco cooperatives; and Sandino’s assassination and the annihilation of his movement by Somoza’s Guardia Nacional. Much of this is familiar ground, to be sure. But the author also traverses some new territory, developing some important and compelling arguments (on the centrality of caudillismo, patron-client relations, the civil war, and the role of Segovian popular religion in shaping the rebellion) and offering some very interesting discussions for Central Americanists (such as that on why didn’t tobacco emerge as a leading export crop in the region, alongside coffee and bananas).

But if the book advances knowledge, it does so in very small steps, and not on every page. Primary sources are broadly but not densely distributed in the notes, while copious archival caches bearing directly on the subject are left largely untouched (the very rich testimonies produced in the early 1980s by the Instituto de Estudio del Sandinismo are used only in brief published excerpts; United States State Department records are not consulted; and the voluminous Marine Corps and Guardia Nacional archives are used only very sparingly). Presumably because a central aim is “rescatar a la persona histórica del mito en que se encuentra envuelta” (p. 24), a host of novels, short stories, and memoirs bearing directly on Sandino and the rebellion are likewise ignored. Partly in consequence, the author’s coverage of different topics tends to reproduce many assumptions and imbalances of the published literatures from which he draws (e.g., Sandino’s split with Froylán Turcios receives ten times more attention than the [arguably] more consequential but less well documented marine and Guardia violence against Segovianos). And, perhaps inevitably, many conclusions, both major and minor, remain open to challenge (cf., for example, Brooks on the Atlantic Coast or on the death of Adolfo Cockburn).

Still, Wünderich has succeeded in crafting a learned, comprehensive, fair-minded, and highly readable synthetic portrait of Sandino’s life and rebellion, and a robust and compelling interpretation of the contexts in which these unfolded. Despite the many crises confronting Nicaragua today, all Nicaraguans, Sandinista party faithful and not, as well as professional academics from across the map, would doubtless benefit from a close read of this very fine book.