We Were Here by Matt De La Pena 2009
IQ "People always think there's this huge hundred-foot-high barrier that separates doing good from doing bad. But there's not. There's nothing. There's not even a little anthill. You just take one baby step in any direction and you're already there. You've done something awful. And your life is changed forever." Miguel pg. 119
In We Were Here, we meet Miguel, Mong, Rondell and a host of other characters who come from different backgrounds. For most of the novel we focus on Miguel, Mong and Rondell. Miguel is half Mexican, half white. Mong is Chinese. Rondell is African American. Miguel is the seemingly "normal" one, he is standoffish when he enters the group home. Miguel is quite intelligent, but he never applied himself in school. While at the group home he begins reading a lot more. Mong has scars all over his face and a shaved head, "this Mong dude wasn't like that [a quiet, studious Asian]. He was a different kind of Asian kid." Mong is not afraid to get in fights, he's vicious and never backs down. He has no fear. Rondell is muscular, mentally slow and a Bible thumper. He' also an amazing basketball player. These three boys should not be able to function well together, but they break out of juvi together and that begins their adventure across California in an attempt to get to Mexico.
I'm writing this with review with tears in my eyes. Just revisiting this book makes me want to cry. I was well through this book and I was doing alright, I was enraptured by the story, mainly because the author does not tell you why Miguel is in a juvenile home. It's revealed at the end. And then, I lost it. Not full out sobbing, but the tears were falling. It's so SAD! How could the author do that to me (haha, selfish much?) and all other readers. I was so crushed by the ending, but I was sort of expecting it. Deep down I had already guessed what he did but I was so hoping that I would be wrong. *pauses to get tissues* (this is why you write reviews in advance and not the day of!)
The characters in this novel all seem like people you might know. Maybe not at first, but beneath the surface, they are just like so many of us, they just happen to have a prison sentence. Some of the boys come from truly horrific situations. As a full disclosure, I had tears in my eyes at Mong and Rondell's stories too. Miguel begins devouring every book in sight while in the group home. When the boys break out, he takes a stack of books with him. He has one of my favorite quotes about reading "When I'm following what a character does in a book I don't have to think about my own life. Where I am. Why I'm here. My moms and my brother and my old man. I can just think about the character's life and try and figure out what's gonna happen. Plus when you're in a group home you pretty much can't go anywhere, right? But when you read books you almost feel like you're out there in the world. Like you're going on this adventure right with the main character. At least, that's the way I do it. It's actually not that bad. Even if it is mad nerdy." (pg. 41). I love all the characters in this book (except for the store owner, boo), but I have a special fondness for Jaden. Jaden is the counselor at the group home and he's the surfer type. Y'know; blond, white teeth, blue eyes. But he's watching over "hardened criminals" who are mostly Black and Mexican (one white boy) and he GETS them. While the boys scoff at him and his insights, the reader sees that the boys do respect him and value what he has to say. Often he understands them better than they understand themselves. However, the novel introduces readers to Diego (Miguel's brother), Miguel's parents (alhtough we don't learn too much about Miguel's father), Mei-li (Mong's cousin) and other minor characters who make appearances in the book and make this book a wonderful read. It's also clear that the author loves basketball, its not a major part of the novel but when the game and its players are described its with appreciation and awe.
We Were Here is a poignant, heartbreaking story about boys searching for redemption and themselves. Along the way, they dream of being fishermen and fighting the Devil. The narrative is honest, Miguel is writing the story. he only wants to record the facts, he leaves out much of his feelings, but it comes through in the conversations that he records. At the risk of being a cliche and too gushy, I will part on this note: we often judge criminals based on their crimes. Which is ok to a certain point. However, in the demanding of justice, we must also make the effort through our pain and horror, to understand why the person committed the crime that they did. The environment they grew up in can also play a big role in why a crime is committed and Matt De La Pena shows the struggle that I think many people who have committed crimes go through; being able to forgive themselves. It's a constantly evolving process.
Disclosure: Received from Lyn. Thank you so so much!