Found via: the author. Review copy received from the author
Somehow Gringolandia never made it onto my radar last year, even though it made the 2010 BBYA list. It's also now in the running for the Nerds Heart YA tournament (meaning I've now read 10 of the 32 nominated titles, lol). So when Lyn Miller-Lachman contacted me to ask if I wanted to review it (also graciously offering to send a copy to me since she knew my local library had never been able to get it) I was excited and happy to accept!
In October 1980, young Daniel Aguilar wakes up in the middle of the night to the sounds of soldiers - not uncommon in Pinochet's Chile, but this time they're inside his apartment, looking for his father, Marcelo. When they pull his father from hiding, they make Daniel watch as they deliver a bloody beating before carting the man away to prison.
Six years later, Daniel is now a junior in high school in Wisconsin. His mother escaped Chile with him and his sister in tow and have made a new life for themselves in Gringolandia, ironically the country that empowered the dictator responsible for Marcelo's imprisonment. Daniel's new life includes reggae music, playing Latin American songs in church, and dating the pastor's daughter, Courtney. Life is turned upside down, however, with the sudden news that Marcelo's been freed and will be joining his family in the United States.
Six years in prison have left Marcelo a changed man - he was tortured and brutalized in prison, leaving half of his body partially paralyzed. He drinks to excess, alternately ignoring and berating his family. Before his imprisonment he was a great writer, but now every word is a struggle. He desperately wants to continue writing, telling his story and the stories of his fellow prisoners to encourage people to fight to remove Pinochet from power, but his injuries make it nearly impossible - until Courtney steps in. An AP Spanish student preparing to go to college in the fall, she is captivated by Marcelo's story and works tirelessly to re-write his stories and translate them into English. Daniel isn't sure what to think of his girlfriend becoming so involved in his father's life, but if it makes his father happy, Daniel will go along with it, hoping that the work will help heal his father and open up the opportunity for a real relationship again.
Once again, here's an historical fiction novel highlighting an aspect of history I knew next to nothing about. An author's note in the beginning gives the background on the dictator Pinochet's rise to power (Chile's elected president in 1970 was a socialist, which of course the US didn't like, so they supported a coup in '73 that brought in Pinochet) and the novel itself covers some of Marcelo's imprisonment and torture as well as efforts in the United States to free him and other political prisoners before finally giving us a brief look at life in Chile after Pinochet.
I found myself of two minds about this book. The story is absolutely compelling and fascinating and horrifying - but I never connected with Daniel or Courtney (who narrates a portion in the middle). They never really sounded like teenagers, I suppose, though they certainly had the impulsive actions of teenagers.
Also, there was a minor bit about Courtney that came up a couple of times that, as a native of Michigan, drove me up a wall. I have never heard of people in Michigan taking French in high school because we're "so close" to Canada. Michigan borders Ontario, which speaks English - it's when you get closer to Quebec that you have to start thinking of speaking French, and there's roughly 600 miles between Bloomfield Hills, MI (where Courtney is originally from) and Montreal, Quebec. I can't find a comprehensive biography of Miller-Lachmann, so I don't know if she grew up in Michigan and this was how people chose a high school language back when she lived here, or if it was conjecture, or what. But really, that's the only specific criticism I have here - and she gets kudos for realizing that in Wisconsin they drink pop :-)
So while the bit about French was annoying, and the characters weren't the most relateable I've read about, the compelling story kept me going forward and I can definitely appreciate the positive reviews and accolades this has received so far. I'll definitely be interested to see how far this progresses in the Nerds Heart YA tournament!
Tonight I'm planning on seeing Lyn Miller-Lachmann speak with Peter Marion and Andrew Xiu Fukuda at the Battery Park City library where they will be speaking about the real crimes that inspired their books. I can't wait!