Down to the bone is among the more challenging YA novels I’ve had the pleasure to read.The challenge is less to the reader than to the author, Mayra Lazara Dole. Not only must Dole work her coming of age plot to a happy ending, the author tasks herself to address gay sexuality in an ambiente of Miami’s Cubano cultura. The specific geography provides background for a work that should have widespread appeal for kids everywhere.
Dole, or her editor, recognizes the language gap between Spanish-literate readers and those less endowed. There’s a Spanish-English glossary that clarifies the majority of italicized expressions, even to obvious cognates like música and gringo, and the conjunction y. I looked for a description of a tortilla de platano, but it was omitted. As a certified senior citizen who digs YA and chica lit and is hip to a certain amount of patois, I would have appreciated glossaried help with such English expressions as “hooking up” and the title. Given the popularity of the phrase—a movie and a band share the name--“down to the bone,” I suspect that means something beyond the novel’s final line, “This is where I belong, loved and understood right down to the bone.” In my vocabulary, “hooking up” seems a clearly metaphorical allusion to forming a social alliance, but in Laura’s world, the phrase seems restricted to sexual union.
Scrunchy, née Laura Sofia, has already hooked up with Marlena, or maybe tonight's the night. For sure, they've shared passionate kisses. Laura and Marlena are eleventh graders and deeply in love. Back in the day, this might have been called “puppy love” by adults who remember the first time is not necessarily lasting. But that’s not Laura’s world view. Por vida, that’s what Laura feels. And that’s what Marlena says, too, in a love note Laura’s reading on the last day of school as the novel opens. Daydreaming, the vivacious teen doesn’t hear Fart Face, Sister Asunción, ask a question. That daydream leads to a world of hurt.
Adults in Laura’s world fit one of two types. There are the horrorshow assholes, like the nun and Laura’s mother, or there are the totally cool, like Viva, the mother of Laura’s best friend, Soli. Mostly it’s a world of the former, until Laura discovers Miami’s gay society. Laura’s classmates fit into the former tipos, too. “Muff diver!” they shout, after Sister seizes and reads Marlena’s note to the entire classroom.
Being kicked out of Catholic school is not punishment enough. Laura’s mother demands to know the identity of Laura’s degenerate friend, and, failing that, kicks Laura out of her home until Laura identifies the lover and accepts heterosexuality. Find a man, get married.
Viva and Soli love Laura unconditionally, mirror images of the horrid mother whose love is conditioned on the teenaged girl complying with the mother’s every demand. As much love as Laura feels in her cramped temporary abode, still the daughter wants to go back home to her mother’s love, and to remain in her little brother’s life. I worry about that kid, given that mother.
Laura meets a boi—another term some readers will learn—who befriends the emotionally devasted Laura. Tazer, a rich woman virtually abandoned by her father to a luxurious pad, prefers to present himself as a male. Tazer wants to start a love affair with Laura, but he is not what Laura wants. It’s an interesting view of gay choices. Dole makes the point that gay gente don’t hook up with promiscuous abandon. Like all people, Laura and the gay world she enters are concerned with choices and motivated by emotional attraction. The one who flits from lover to lover is la Soli, a confirmed heterosexual. (Who will come around in the end to a decent but spurned lover).
The worst choice a person can make is to conform to outside pressures, especially when these are inimical to one's self. Laura denies her desires and starts dating a hot-to-trot man. Hoping she’ll fall in love with him, she falls into his arms and into his bed, but doesn’t “hook up” with the conquest-minded hottie. Marlena, on the other hand, is whisked away by her family to Puerto Rico, to be brainwashed by a fundamentalist church. Laura finally gets a “dear Jill” letter from the about-to-be married Marlena, who washes her hands of their love, wishing for Laura to reject herself and become a betrayer like Marlena.
I’ve summarized only a few key plot lines in this engaging novel. Dole’s depiction of Laura’s peers takes the novel into a similar direction as the adultcentric line. There are STD, clubbing, dancing, blind hatred, krypto personae; all adding rich texture to the teenage scene. Sadly, Dole doesn’t dwell on the tragedy of Laura quitting school to work full time to support herself, nor look forward to what happens in three or five years. Will Laura graduate? Get her landscape architect degree? A contractor’s license? Such unexplored possibilities are sorely lacking in an otherwise edifying story that likely mirrors what’s happening for countless teens facing amor prohibido, whether parents like it or not.
Irrespective of sexual identity or activity, teenagers and adults will take serious thought from the novel. Laura and Soli are healthy, happy children. As such—children—they control only some elements of their environment, and expose themselves too much to risky behaviors, e.g. a speeding cab runs down Laura on her bicycle in a late-night accident. Adults might find difficulty allowing a child the kind of freedom Laura takes, but only because her awful mother is such a narrow-minded person. Viva, perhaps, allows her daughter and live-in friend too much liberty, but because the girls make good choices, little harm comes of going overboard in this direction. Obviously the restrictive nuns and birth mother’s rules produce dysfunctional results. Dole’s lesson is a good one: trust the kids to make good decisions. Despite the poor raising Laura got from her mother, she makes those decisions because that’s the right thing to do. Trust the kid to know her heart and take the proper course.
Still, there’s nothing like reasoned adult upbringing to help a kid grow into the kind of adult I hope Laura, Soli, Tazer and the rest will. Adults would profit from YA work like this, if only to know what, or whom, is influencing the next generation's views of their inheritance. As my dad liked to say, pa'lla va la sombra. Let's see what kids can do that we didn't. In Dole's world, there's a montón of intractable caca that won't take care of itself.
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