A little late, but better than never. We wanted to be sure to share with you our thoughts on February’s featured book before the month is over! En la Clase will be back this Friday.
Names on a Map
Written by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Published by Harper Perennial, 2008
Age level: Adult
The Espejo family of El Paso, Texas, is like so many others in America in 1967, trying to make sense of a rapidly escalating war they feel does not concern them. But when the eldest son, Gustavo, a complex and errant rebel, receives a certified letter ordering him to report to basic training, he chooses to flee instead to Mexico. Retreating back to the land of his grandfather—a foreign country to which he is no longer culturally connected—Gustavo sets into motion a series of events that will have catastrophic consequences on the fragile bonds holding the family together.
Told with raw power and searing bluntness, and filled with important themes as immediate as today’s headlines, Names on a Map is arguably the most important work to date of a major American literary artist.
Like everything else I’ve read by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Names on a Map does not disappoint. He tells a captivating story that is simultaneously beautiful and devastating. For me, reading one of his books is always a deeply moving experience. Recently, I heard the term brutiful used to describe something that is both beautiful and brutal at the same time. While brutiful certainly doesn’t do justice to the aesthetic or lyricism of Sáenz’s writing, I think the idea of the word captures an important aspect of what makes his work so outstanding. For those familiar with Sáenz’s other novels, you may find his characters here comfortingly familiar as they seem to have pieces of Sammy, Gigi, Aristotle, and Dante, among others.
As we’ve explained in earlier posts, we’re alternating between young adult and adult novels this year for our book group. Our young adult book reviews focus on how and why a particular book could be used with students. We want our adult reviews to have a similar educational focus, but perhaps more on how and why a book is a valuable reflective experience for educators. So, while there’s much I could say about Names on a Map, I’m going to focus on the themes that I hope will be the most relevant to the topics of conversation we have as educators.
A highly character-driven novel, Sáenz tells his story through the alternating points of view of the Espejo family and other members of their El Paso community. Revealing the climax of the story early, Sáenz focuses on the characters’ struggles for self-understanding. One review critiques this, arguing that “Sáenz deftly captures a mood, but his obsession with introspection bloats the family story.” I disagree. I think this is an essential piece to what makes it such a beautiful book. Self-reflection, introspection, and mindfulness are things our society seems to struggle with more and more. Just think about the large number of recent self-help bestsellers that are about mindfulness. While there is obviously something here that we are grappling with as a society, there’s little if any conversation about how to teach our students these skills or how this can impact the practice of education. Interestingly, studies have linked student success to the amount of time teachers have to reflect on how and what they’re teaching. The more time for reflection the more successful students are. It’s not surprising that the U.S. tends to rank at the bottom in terms of the amount of time teachers are given for such reflection. If we find Sáenz’s emphasis on reflection uncomfortable, perhaps we should ask ourselves why that is.
It is the introspective nature of Sáenz’s characters that safeguards against oversimplifying what was a complex period of U.S. history. There’s no question where Sáenz stands on the Vietnam War. In the back matter he shares that he wanted to write a political book, and he did. And it’s a compelling one. But while he clearly is making a point, he does it without demonizing anyone. It was a complicated time in the U.S. People were part of the collateral damage—both those who died and those who survived. While he offers a critique of those who seemed to unquestioningly accept the patriotism of supporting the Vietnam War, he also offers a very compassionate picture of the young men sent to fight that war. He shows all the shades of grey that make war anything but a black and white issue. He finds a way to humanize everyone without weakening his own critique of the war. He speaks truth with grace and shows the value in understanding why people are the way they are and why they do what they do. Yet, at the same time he makes a strong argument for recognizing one’s agency. One of my favorite quotes is a series of reflective questions asked by Gustavo and Xochil’s mother: “That’s what my life had become? Become? Was it as passive as all that? Were we as stationary as trees in the wind? Did we just let life take us along as if human beings were no more sentient than the water a river swept to the sea?” (p. 96).
There are also a number of connections that can be made between contemporary discussions around immigration and the role immigration plays in the novel. Immigration has an important historical role in Names on a Map as the older generations reflect on the ways in which they have changed as a result of Mexican immigration to the U.S. during the Mexican Revolution. Many of them immigrated as refugees from the violence of the Revolution. Decades later they continue to think of themselves as living in exile. This affects not only the ways in which they engage with society and younger generations, but their own personal psychology and identity. This is significant because it can expand and complicate in important ways how we think about immigration today.
We don’t often think about how the history of immigration in a family continues to affect future generations, but we should, especially in light of the numbers of unaccompanied minors travelling from Central America and the refugee crisis in Europe. What are the effects of inheriting exile? As Octavio, the father, ponders: “You remember what your father said when he was forced to leave Mexico, forced to leave the only piece of earth he’d ever love. Todos somos huérfanos en este maldito mundo. Orphans all of us in this cruel and breaking earth” (p. 229). Then, later Gustavo, the son, realizes, “Your grandfather lost everything, his land, his riches, his country. Your father inherited exile” (p. 273). This is the reality of a growing number of our students. Sadly, what Gustavo says is true for too many children: “In the end, you will always be a child of war” (p. 302). I’ll close with a quote that I think is important for all of us who work with children to consider. As Gustavo’s mother struggles with the possibility of losing her son to the draft for the Vietnam War she reflects, “But if I had to make a choice between a country and my son, then I would choose my son. . .I did idealize my children. I thought they were all beautiful enough to save. All of them.” (p. 310). For me, this is a powerful thought. What if all of us who worked in some capacity with children believed they were ALL beautiful enough to save, and we were willing to choose saving them over all else?
If you’re interested in learning more about his young adult books, we’ve featured a number of them as part of our book group. They all come highly recommended. The links below will take you to the Educator’s Guide page for each book.
- Sammy & Juliana in Hollywood
- Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
- He Forgot to Say Goodbye