Thursday, October 8, 2009

Review: Return to Sender by Julia Alvarez

Found via: BBYA 2010 Nominations
Winner: Pura Belpre Author Award 2010

Both Tyler and Mari live on a small Vermont dairy farm, but they're there for two very different reasons: Tyler is the son of the farmer, who was injured over the summer in a tractor accident. Mari is the daughter of the Mexican migrant worker Tyler's father hired (along with his two brothers, Mari's uncles) to help around the farm.

Tyler is a perpetual worrier: he's worried that his parents are going to sell the farm, but there are also rumors that Mari and her family are in the country illegally. Why would his parents want to break the law by employing illegal immigrants?

Alvarez does a good job working through Tyler's concerns. The novel follows his and Mari's year in sixth grade, which really is just about the time you begin to figure out the world isn't all black and white. We watch Tyler grow from someone who is fairly absolutist to recognizing the shades of gray in the world as he begins to form his own opinions and craft an identity separate from his parents' beliefs.

Less well done were Mari's parts of the narrative. Tyler's chapters are from a 3rd person perspective while Mari occasionally tells a chapter through letters. There's nothing wrong with this device, except Alvarez fills Mari's chapters with some very awkward exposition, with Mari telling characters she is writing to things that they already know, because the events happened to them before Mari started her letter. It's the sort of writing conceit one usually sees in science fiction, where one scientist is explaining something to another using phrases like "Well of course you know about..." and rehashing things that all of the characters know but the reader doesn't. It sticks out every time it happens (and it happens in several of Mari's letters), to the point where I really thought Alvarez should have chosen a different style for conveying Mari's chapters.

September 15-October 15 is Hispanic heritage month, and this is an excellent title to read as part of the celebration as Mari and her two sisters teach Tyler and his family (especially his grandmother) all sorts of Mexican traditions. Really I think the grandmother was my favorite character - she's so excited to learn from the girls and doesn't hesitate before embracing and celebrating things like the Day of the Dead.
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