Book Review: Gringolandia

"Gringolandia," Gringolandia
Written by Lyn Miller-Lachmann
Published by Curbstone Books, 2009
ISBN:   9781931896498
Age Level: Ages 14 and Up

Description (From GoodReads):

Daniel’s papá, Marcelo, used to play soccer, dance the cueca, and drive his kids to school in a beat-up green taxi—all while publishing an underground newspaper that exposed Chile’s military regime. After papá’s arrest in 1980, Daniel’s family fled to the United States. Now Daniel has a new life, playing guitar in a rock band and dating Courtney, a minister’s daughter. He hopes to become a US citizen as soon as he turns eighteen. When Daniel’s father is released and rejoins his family, they see what five years of prison and torture have done to him. Marcelo is partially paralyzed, haunted by nightmares, and bitter about being exiled to “Gringolandia.” Daniel worries that Courtney’s scheme to start a bilingual human rights newspaper will rake up papá’s past and drive him further into alcohol abuse and self-destruction. Daniel dreams of a real father-son relationship, but he may have to give up everything simply to save his papá’s life. This powerful coming-of-age story portrays an immigrant teen’s struggle to reach his tortured father and find his place in the world.

My thoughts:

Gringolandia isn’t a story easily forgotten, and it shouldn’t be.  As an adult with a Master’s degree in Latin American Studies, the practice of torturing and disappearing political dissidents as a means of social control during violent dictatorships wasn’t new to me. Yet I was still gripped by the novel, finding myself thinking about it days after I’d finished it.  For young adult readers I think Gringolandia would be an incredibly powerful and moving book.  Not only does it give voice to a historical period in a country not often taught about in the classroom, but I believe it also asks readers to think quite deeply about how we determine what is right or wrong and how we judge and make sense of the world around us.

The story is largely told from Daniel’s point of view, with alternating shorter sections told from the point of view of Daniel’s father, Marcelo, and Daniel’s girlfriend, Courtney.  It begins in 1986 in Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship when Marcelo is beaten and arrested in the middle of the night in front of Daniel and his mother.  The next section describes the torture Marcelo endured during the following six years of his imprisonment.  The remaining bulk of the book covers the period six years later, when Marcelo is released and reunited with his family who fled to the United States after his arrest.  Not surprisingly, everyone has changed during those six years.  Daniel’s father has been irreparably scarred both physically and emotionally by the torture.  Daniel has adapted quite well to life in the United States, to the seeming disappointment of his father, who critically refers to the U.S. as Gringolandia.

Daniel, his mother, his father, and his sister must learn what it means to be a family again.  As I watched them struggle through this, I found myself asking what does it mean to be family?  What will we do for family? Often times our students have these idealized versions of what family should be, and when theirs don’t measure up they don’t feel comfortable sharing their struggles, thus creating a vast disconnect between school and home.  If Daniel hoped that everything would go back to the way it was before, he soon finds this isn’t the case.  Instead, he struggles to deal with a father who has become distant and angry, who turns to alcohol as a means of dealing with the torture that has permanently damaged him.  My hope is that as students read, the space will be opened for them to share their own experiences.

Daniel seems to have successfully adapted to the U.S.  He does well in school, plays in a rock band, and has a white girlfriend.  As he watches his father suffer, he can’t believe his father talks of returning to Chile after all that was done to him.  One of the more powerful aspects of the book is watching as Daniel deals with the inner turmoil of his feelings towards his father.  Part of him blames his father for choosing the actions that led to his torture and his family’s exile, while part of him wants to be proud of his father’s work, as so many others are.  We’re forced to consider the question, how do we determine what is the right thing to do? Or, as the book cover asks, “When history calls your name, how will you answer?”  Fruitful discussion could come from asking students these questions.  Daniel’s relationship with his father is closely tied to his relationship with his home country, Chile.  He must come to terms with this own identity, and decide who he is.

Part of the power of the book lies in the variety of themes it raises.  While there may be many quality books that look at family relations, alcoholism, or civic duty, I think Gringolandia is one of the most powerful books I’ve read that delves into those and explores both political refugeeism and torture.  As I read the section that described Marcelo’s torture, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Zero Dark Thirty, the movie about the hunt for and assassination of Osama bin Laden that received so much publicity last year.  I’m sure many of our students have also seen the movie.  I’d be interested to hear their thoughts on torture after viewing the film, and then after reading Gringolandia—my guess is many would struggle to make sense of their differing responses to each.  I believe this is part of what makes the story so gripping—it forces our students out of a black and white, clear cut understanding of the world, and makes them deal with those grey areas—Is torture ever okay? Can it ever be condoned? Why?

I couldn’t agree more with the following from Horn Book: “Miller-Lachmann credits teen readers with the capacity to appreciate hard truths about international politics, the consequences of torture, complex family dynamics, and first loves….the nuanced relationship between Daniel and his father is beautifully delineated, and the overarching exploration of injustice and its costs gives the novel memorable heft.”

I’m not alone in thinking Gringolandia is a worthwhile read–it’s received recognition from a variety of organizations as the 2010 ALA Best Books for Young Adults, the 2010 Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s Books of 2010, a 2010 Américas Award Honor Book, and a IPPY Gold Medal.  I hope you’ll consider adding it to your classroom library.  Click here to be taken to our Educator’s Guide for the book.

If you’d like to read what others have thought about the book check out the links to other reviews below:

If you’re an Albuquerque local I hope you’ll join us Monday August 5th at Bookworks from 5-7 for some coffee and conversation about Gringolandia!

–Katrina

Good for: Gathering Books AWB Challenge (2010 ALA Best Books for Young Adults, 2010 Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s Books of 2010, 2010 Américas Award Honor Book, IPPY Gold Medal) and My Overstuffed Bookshelf YA Reading Challenge

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: Gringolandia

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