Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Review: Julia Alvarez. Return To Sender.

NY: Knopf, 2009. 
ISBN: 0-375-85838-5

Michael Sedano

Tyler’s family is about to lose their dairy farm after a tractor accident disables dad’s shoulder. Coming hard upon Granpa’s death, and impending college for the elder son, the Paquette family’s ability to work is far short of the farm’s demands for labor. Desperate, they hire three Mexicans, the Cruz brothers. Tyler’s family doesn’t know about the three girls, one about Tyler’s age.

At first, Mom compels Tyler to be neighborly to the girls living down in the trailer. Reluctantly, Tyler complies. As Tyler and Mari develop a deep friendship, Tyler struggles with his contradictions. On one side, as a loyal, law-abiding person, Tyler understands his family is breaking the law. On the other side is what his mother calls the Cruz family, angels.

Further complicating the mix are the two youngest, born-in-the-USA sisters and the interplay this brings within the trailer. The youngsters are so comfortable in English that Papa permits only Spanish language television on the hand-me-down from Granma.

Of everyone in the extended family group, Granma welcomes the Cruz girls with complete abandon. They offer all-day companionship for the seventy-something woman, along with a healthy dose of intercultural communication. But when Granma builds an Ofrenda for Grampa, the family thinks she’s gone and tries to force her into a rest home.

School finds Mari and Tyler in the same class, with a wonderfully humane teacher who speaks up at the annual town meeting and puts down the village curmudgeon. When the family goes on the run from la migra, this old crotchety fellow becomes the fugitives’ best friend and Tyler’s too.

There's an ugly hard edge to the story, but Alvarez pulls the punches. Leave it to a parent to discuss coyotes, slavery, ransom, and torture. When Mari's mother goes missing during a surreptitious crossing into Texas, father and daughters fear the worst but refuse to put Mama's photo on the altar this year.

Constructed in an epistolary style, the gimmick falls apart immediately, in disbelief that an eleven year old child writes like Julia Alvarez! No reader will give a hoot at the transparent failure of the letter / diary ploy. It’s a superb way to subsume narrative requirements to the needs of character and plot, and pulling at heartstrings.

Return to Sender will be an ideal choice for adult bookgroups, but also for those ten and eleven year olds in the family, surrounded as they are by immigrant bashing hysteria. Alvarez puts a personal, human face on the condition. Those intensely pro-immigrant will find the end disturbing. I don’t know if this is a Vermont thing, but Mari’s contentment, and of her self-deported minor citizen sisters, is not the answer.

That's what the second Tuesday of April sounds like. For the past 8 years, paying my taxing due has been a pain, knowing what I was getting for my money. With the new guy in charge, here's hoping the money goes to better days.

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