Last spring, Lyn Miller-Lachmann (author of Gringolandia) suggested I read this book; the title always stood out in my mind, and when I saw it again on Doret’s list of Latino books, I decided it was time to pick it up. I LOVED this book. And like my recent experience reading Sherman Alexie, I had to stop a few times and wait for my eyes to be free of tears. Wow–this is one of the most perfect YA novels I’ve ever read, and again–it doesn’t have to be confined to the YA category. A great book is a great book, and this protagonist, Sammy Santos, is thoughtful, caring, angry, wise, and the kind of boy I’d want my younger brother to know. As with the last book I reviewed (The Rock and the River) the year is 1968; Sammy is in love, and his own intimate knowledge of grief (he lost his mother to cancer) helps him to connect with Juliana, a smart, tough girl at his school who comes from a dysfunctional family. Juliana accepts that her own father sees her as “dirty,” but refuses to submit to the racism of her “gringo” teachers at Las Cruces High School. Sammy doesn’t think there’s much he can do about the way Mexicans in his barrio are treated, but when Juliana and her siblings are murdered by their father, Sammy starts to slowly unwind. Called “The Librarian” for being solemn and focused on his studies, Sammy gradually joins the wave of social justice movements that are shaking the country; he manages a Hollywood friend’s campaign for student President, helps to organize a nonviolent protest against the school’s restrictive dress code, and wears a black armband to signal his resistance to the Viet Nam war, which claimed the life of his friend, Pifas. The bond between Sammy and his friends is represented with such tenderness it was actually hard to see them graduate and drift apart; Sammy is admired by everyone, and yet he’s grappling with a lot of complex emotions: how do you hold onto your faith when the Irish Catholic priest hates your people? how do you justify lying to a friend to help keep his hope alive? how do you let yourself be mothered by a nosy neighbor who has appointed herself God’s right hand? Sammy looks at the self-righteous Mrs. Apodaca and sees the suffering beneath her stern surface; he looks at Pifas and sees the frightened boy clinging to his distant friends as war overwhelms him; just as Sammy saw the pain buried deep within Juliana, he sees the ambition and anxiety in Gigi, a Mexican girl who sings like an angel but has no chance of winding up on the radio. Like Alexie’s character, Junior, Sammy cries often, has a doting father, and a sister whom he adores; he works hard to understand his emotions, and creates a metaphor (beating wings) to explain the desire, hope, fear, and rage that alternate in his heart. He wants to hang out with the guys in his neighborhood, but finds they do nothing but drink and pick fights:
So what if they were pissed off? I was pissed off, too. I was pissed off about a lot of things. About my mom. About Juliana. About living in Hollywood. About working all the time, and having to save every dime, every nickel, every penny just so I could go to college. About having teachers and friends who looked at me like I was wasting my time by working so goddamned hard at being a good student. About being called The Librarian behind my back by every asshole who thought being a man meant ignoring the fact that he was born with a fucking mind. Damnit to hell! I was pissed off, too. But I didn’t go around kicking people’s asses just because I was pissed off.
Instead of letting unfocused rage engulf him, Sammy loses himself in books and “leaves” the world sometimes to think things through in his mind. He sees the desperation behind his schoolmates’ urge to couple; he yearns for Juliana, but realizes loving and losing her has left him alone, in exile. Sammy doesn’t want to lose his capacity to love, but feels he has to be strong; he cooks for his family every night, reads stories to his younger sister, and wishes he could kiss his father as easily and openly as his father kisses him. When one of Sammy’s friends is nearly beaten to death for being gay, Sammy stops the assault but then struggles with the shame of being publicly linked to “a queer.” The scene where Sammy overcomes his fear and embraces Jaime had me weeping for a bit…this book doesn’t have a traditional happy ending, but it has such depth and beauty—it’s a profound reading experience. Sammy becomes a fine young man because his father urges him to “find a way to love the world,” even when it doesn’t love you back.
*Mayra Lazara Dole linked to a great article on Facebook about teens coming out in middle school–you can read it here.