Saturday, July 31, 2010
[Book cover credit: librarything.com/work/8139206]
ALA Best Books for Young Adults (2010)
Americas Award Honorable Mention
Daniel's life is pretty good, but not perfect. His mom is a grad student so there's not a lot of money, his sister is getting to the age where she's real angsty and annoying, and every year his mother heads a letter writing campaign to free his father from a prison in Pinochet's Chile. Still, Dan's pretty happy. He plays in a band, has a great girlfriend, and speaks with a sexy accent leftover from his Chilean childhood. Then Daniel's mother gets word that her husband will be released and allowed to join his family in America. That should make everything finally perfect. But when Daniel's father is released, he is a physically broken and psychologically scarred shell of the father Dan remembers.
Gringolandia opens with an Author's Note explaining the very real circumstances and events in Chile that lead up to what is experienced by the fictional characters in the book. A short bibliography for further reading is also provided. Usually this kind of thing goes at the end of the story when readers are more likely to be interested in picking up 4-5 books on the topic. I thought it was a weird choice to put the note and bibliography at the beginning...until I started reading.
Miller-Lachmann expects a lot of her readers, in a good way. Her author's note allows her not to take precious page space away from the story later. For example, we see Dan's father derisively call the States "Gringolandia" and refuse to learn English. We see the disdain he has for the USA and for his wife's choice to bring the family there. Miller-Lachmann doesn't tell us that his dislike (to put it kindly) for America is because the United States government helped Pinochet gain power in Chile. She trusts us to put two and two together, which she is only able to do because she explained Pinochet's rise to power in her opening note.
Because, let's be honest, not many Americans know that much about Chile and certainly don't know that much about what it was like to live through the turbulent times Dan and his family live through, hence the need for the author's note. I don't read a lot of historical fiction about specific events (which I guess this is, even though it makes me feel really old to call the decade in which I was born history), but much of the historical fiction published in the States of this type is about very well-known events. Even if the average American reader doesn't know the ins and outs of the actual event, they know the basics. Think about how much historical fiction is set during WWII or the French Revolution, or is about Anastasia Romanova. Gringolandia fills a huge gap. I can't think of any other historical fiction for teen readers about South America, let alone about Chile. In fact, a search in WorldCat for "historical fiction" and "South America" only returns 78 books, including duplicates for large print titles. "Historical fiction" and "Chile" returns 84, and those numbers don't even begin to touch on the intended audience of the titles.
Even if there were tons of titles about political prisoners under Pinochet, I think that Gringolandia would still stand out. Without repeating events, this story is told from three distinctive points of view: Dan's, his father's, and his girlfriend's. Dan's father, Marcelo, talks about what it was like in prison (and believe me, even the polite version presented here can get graphic), but the strong point in his narrative is his passion for a free Chile. He doesn't regret the actions he took that led to his arrest; he desperately wants to continue that work, regardless of the consequences, now that he's been released. He's also going through some serious PTSD that is tearing his family apart. His perspective is contrasted with Dan's. Dan doesn't really know what his father did (you can't be questioned about what you don't know), and he doesn't understand how his father could put himself and his family at such great risk for a cause. He certainly can't understand why his father doesn't want to just move on and make the best of things. Like his father, Dan has trust issues and a serious flinch in the face of policemen, but without the conviction that helps his father work through these issues. Courtney, Dan's girlfriend, is all fired up about what happened to Marcelo and what is happening in Chile in general, but she is also woefully naive. Semi-spoiler: There is a great scene when they all return to Chile. Courtney decides to join a women's protest and things go as wrong as humanly possible. From Dan's POV: "Courtney. I think she can't believe these [soldiers] will do anything to her--like her pale skin and blond hair are a Plexiglas bubble around her, keeping all the bad things away" (241). It's kind of the perfect way to describe her attitude throughout the entire book. End spoiler. Courtney breaks through to Marcelo when no one else can by believing whole-heartedly in what he believes in, guided by a simple sense of right and wrong and of fairness.
There is so much going on in this book along side of so much actually happening. I'm not going to lie, it's intense and not always easy to read. But it is so worth it! Not only will the reader learn about events not often discussed in American history classes, but they'll also get to know some ridiculously complex characters and watch them make impossible choices for themselves and the greater good.
I read Gringolandia as one of my PK books, but the fact that Courtney's dad's a pastor didn't even come up in my review. It's important to her character and back story, but not all that important to what is going on with her, Dan and Marcelo. The big PK moment is when Dan, her boyfriend and the person she is the most close to, says something at lunch implying that Courtney couldn't possibly know what he's going through at home. Her family and home-life are too perfect. This is followed by a one-line chapter from Courtney's perspective: "Dan doesn't know everything about me" (64). It could have been said by almost all the PKs I've read about in the last month.
Book source: Philly Free Library
Thanks to MissAttitude at Reading In Color for the recommendation!