Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall 2011
Lee & Low Books
IQ "I know he wouldn't purposely/hurt me; he's just venting/his frustrations,/So when I feel his anger/blowing my way,/I hold my breath and try to see through it. /But then the smoke burns my eyes/till they start to water,/and I know it's time to move-/find a clear spot/away from the smoldering coals." "What's Gone" Lupita pg. 111
Lupita is the oldest of eight siblings and so she is a huge help to her mother. Her mother tries to hide her cancer diagnosis from her children but Lupita discovers the truth and she is terrified by the very real possibility that she could lose her mother, the thread that holds their large family together. Lupita must take charge as head of the family while her father works and drives her mother to various treatment facilities, but her siblings won't cooperate with her and her class load is hardly manageable. If Lupita falls apart she fears the family will fall apart and she cannot allow that to happen.
Lupita's friends were bizarre. They jarred me so much that I couldn't get them out of my head even after they disappeared for a brief time from the pages. Her friend Mireya makes one horrid comment in the beginning of the book and I expected Lupita to stop being her friend. But she doesn't. Lupita seems to pretty much be a loner anyway so I could not fathom why she still talked to Mireya. It seemed unrealistic to me because I do not think anyone would remain friends with someone who made such an awful comment about their family. I also think that whether because it was free-verse or just short, it was hard to connect with the other characters. This is Lupita's story but when you have eight other siblings I can't help but feel that more notice should be taken of them. I also wanted to know more about her relationship with her father.
This novel is not driven by plot, it is driven by emotions and a series of small events in Lupita's life that affected how she is now. I think this book's strength lies in the fact that it focuses less on Lupita's mother succumbing to the disease and more on how her mother's illness affects Lupita and their strong mother-daughter bond. The mesquite grows in Lupita's mother's rose garden and at first her mother tries to remove it but eventually she gives up. Lupita and her mother are both stubborn and they book strive to see the beauty in pain and in ugly things. Lupita uses her mother's illness to help herself become a better actress, to inspire her writing. But her poems are not angst-ridden, instead they are thoughtful. This thoughtfulness is a theme for the author as more and more now I find myself able to applaud the ease at which an author includes Spanish and English side-by-side without offering the direct translation. Lupita is not babied and neither is the reader. I appreciated the little moments of joy that permeated throughout this novel. Like Lupita I was worried for their family and then something amusing or a border-line miracle would occur and we would both be reassured that maybe everything would be OK.
Under the Mesquite is a fast read filled with sublime poems that will make this book stretch out further because you want to go back and re-read the lines. Lupita's self-direction and courage are admirable qualities and we should only be so lucky to remain as steadfast as she does. She is not a saint, she lashes out at her siblings at times just like anyone else would. I admired her utter selflessness as her college funds and the college funds of her siblings were drained in order to pay for her mother's operations. I would do the same but it might take me a little more time to come around. To be perfectly honest though, while this book is lovely, it did not stay with me. I had trouble writing this review because I could not remember the small details in this book. Since this is a book that is all about the small things, the little details that change during the illness of a loved one, this is problematic. But that's just me.
Disclosure: From the publisher. Thank you so much Lee & Low!