Journey of Dreams
Written by Marge Pellegrino
Published by Frances Lincoln, 2009
Ages: 11 and up
Description (from Goodreads):
For the peaceful highlanders of Guatemala, life has become a nightmare. Helicopters slash like machetes through the once-quiet air. Soldiers patrol the streets, hunting down suspected guerillas. Villagers mysteriously disappear and children are recruited as soldiers. Tomasa’s family is growing increasingly desperate, especially after Mama goes into hiding with Tomasa’s oldest brother. Finally, after their house is razed to the ground and the villagers massacred, Tomasa, Manuelito, and baby Maria set off with Papa on a perilous journey to find Mama and Carlos, only to discover that where one journey ends, another begins. This gripping novel tells the story of how Tomasa’s family survives the Guatemalan army’s brutal regime and how, in the midst of tragedy, their love and loyalty — and Papa’s storytelling — keeps them going on their harrowing journey as refugees to the United States. Mirrored in the tapestries of Tomasa’s dreams, the dramatic events of the Guatemalan army’s “scorched earth” campaign of the 1980s are tempered with hope and the generosity of the human spirit.
After spending the last month working on projects around the violence in Juárez and the disappearances and torture in Pinochet’s Chile, I have to admit, I wasn’t sure I was up for reading Journey of Dreams. While all the reviews were quite positive, every time I read the synopsis I’d start to feel the dread of one more incredibly depressing story that I was going to have to immerse myself in. I managed to talk myself out of starting it a number of times. Eventually I ran out of time, our book group meeting was just a few weeks away, and there was no more putting it off. Once I started it though, I loved it.
It is a beautiful book in so many different ways. I obviously had expectations based on the historical context of the book. While the story takes place during the violent period of the Guatemalan Civil War, it isn’t a depressing story in the way one would expect. There are parts that are sad and difficult to read. These parts are even harder to come to terms with when you realize you’re reading them through the eyes of a thirteen year-old girl. Pellegrino manages to deal with much of the violence implicitly, making the novel appropriate for a much broader age range. There is no explicitly gruesome violence. Tomasa talks about the smell of the burning villages or the sights of the mounds of what appear to be bodies in the village square, but the reality of the violence that these things speak to seems to hover just outside of the story. As an adult reader, I know the horror of what these things represent, but a younger reader more than likely would not. This means that a teacher could share the story of Tomasa and her family, without delving into the darker parts of this period in Guatemala if that wasn’t appropriate for the grade level. For more background on both the Guatemalan historical context and the Sanctuary Movement, be sure to read the section “About the Story” at the end of the book.
It’s a book that has the potential to open the eyes of our students to a world that they may not know. It puts a face and a story to the word “immigrant” that’s been so hotly debated. For our students who know this story all too well because it echoes parts of their own, it’s a way to see themselves reflected in our classrooms, to read about a protagonist who represents them. For these same students, it’s a story of hope—an immigration story with a happy ending. Tomasa’s voice is clear, strong, and endearing. Often we hear that we don’t have enough books with strong female characters, but Pellegrino offers us one with 13 year-old Tomasa. But, it’s not just Tomasa; all of the characters seem real and well-developed. I believe students will be able to identify with both Tomasa and her younger brother Manuel in significant ways.
There were many things that I loved about this book, but three things stand out that are present throughout the novel: the storytelling, the weaving, and Tomasa’s dreams. The book opens with Tomasa’s father telling one of their favorite stories. He does this every night before they go sleep. It becomes an important constant as the story unfolds. There are always multiple meanings or interpretations of the stories, and at times they foreshadow what is to come.Tomasa and her mother are both weavers. Tomasa seems to process many of the things she experiences through imagining how she would weave them. Once they flee, she no longer has the ability to actually weave, so instead she draws pictures in her head or in the dirt on the ground. As I read these parts, I was reminded of the other projects we’ve worked on this semester where art became not only a way to heal from these experiences, but also a form of documenting or story-telling, a way to make sure that others would know what had happened. Tomasa’s images seem to do the same: “Even the smallest noise made with a stick in the dirt could alert a civilian patrol. Without my loom, or even the earth, I can only draw in my mind. . .The thought of a stick scratching these images in the earth helps me stop trembling” (p. 88). Tomasa’s dreams are another constant and important part of the novel. Through her dreams we see what she worries about, and often, how she makes sense of their experiences through her father’s stories. In all three of these things—the storytelling, weaving images, and dreams—Pellegrino uses incredibly lyrical and poetic writing. She paints pictures in the minds of the reader with beautiful figurative and sensory language. Many of these sections would be excellent examples to use as mentor texts to show students the power of descriptive writing.
There are many ways to integrate Pellegrino’s book into our classroom curriculum. Aside from the ways it could be used to teach writing, her content connects to multiple topics: the history of the Maya, the role of weaving in Mayan Culture, the Guatemalan Civil War, Día de los Muertos in Guatemala, the Sanctuary Movement, and Civil Rights activism. I’ve included ideas for how to teach on these topics in our Educator’s Guide.
It’s a book that I think will be a very valuable addition to our classrooms. I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from the book: “In the morning, we start walking again, beginning the pattern of our day as Mama might begin a new line on the loom. Each footstep is like a string wrapped by a thread, marking another piece of our journey. Only God knows how large the fabric will grow or how long our lives will be. If my prayers are heard, we will be with Mama and Carlos before it is finished. I wish I knew what kind of images we will weave between now and then” (p. 123).
Our complete Educator’s Guide for the book is available now, click here to access it. Be sure to look for tomorrow’s En la Clase post on teaching about Mayan Weaving.