By Sarah Hannah Gómez
DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Celeste Marconi is a dreamer. She lives peacefully among friends and neighbors and family in the idyllic town of Valparaiso, Chile–until the time comes when even Celeste, with her head in the clouds, can’t deny the political unrest that is sweeping through the country. Warships are spotted in the harbor and schoolmates disappear from class without a word. Celeste doesn’t quite know what is happening, but one thing is clear: no one is safe, not anymore.
The country has been taken over by a government that declares artists, protestors, and anyone who helps the needy to be considered “subversive” and dangerous to Chile’s future. So Celeste’s parents–her educated, generous, kind parents–must go into hiding before they, too, “disappear.” To protect their daughter, they send her to America.
As Celeste adapts to her new life in Maine, she never stops dreaming of Chile. But even after democracy is restored to her home country, questions remain: Will her parents reemerge from hiding? Will she ever be truly safe again?
Accented with interior artwork, steeped in the history of Pinochet’s catastrophic takeover of Chile, and based on many true events, this multicultural ode to the power of revolution, words, and love is both indelibly brave and heartwrenchingly graceful.
MY TWO CENTS: This reads like a pretty classic middle grade novel in the tradition of Sharon Creech or Patricia Reilly Giff. Celeste has a very sweet and thoughtful way about her, and she narrates the day-to-day of her life with the eye of a girl who is young but observant. There is some beautiful scene setting in her house, where her grandmother, nanny, mother, and father dote on her; and at school, where she has a great teacher and the usual smattering of fun, doofy, and snobbish classmates. She has an idyllic life and loves it—until the president is assassinated and the dictator takes over.
Agosín does a good job of showing how this type of takeover happens gradually and all at once, and Celeste observes different things happening – like some classmates not showing up for school or the adults in her life all of a sudden being worried about her safety – and only slowly begins to put them together as being related to the same thing. When she moves to Maine, Celeste remains very observant and thoughtful about everything. Her descriptions are just beautiful.
But that’s also a weakness in the book – Celeste is so thoughtful that it doesn’t always feel like she has any emotion. Her parents have to go into hiding and she says she’s sad, but you don’t necessarily see it – the quality and style of her narration and her observations don’t change much depending on her mood. And it doesn’t help that the last quarter of the book goes from lyrical and fairly realistic to a totally Disney TV movie ending.
That said, there is plenty of good in this book. Latin@s? Check. And, unlike any books I remember reading from my childhood or much during my adulthood, Celeste’s family is also Jewish – her grandmother speaks to her in German and reminisces about escaping the Holocaust by coming to Chile. That parallel is what really gives the book its emotional impact. Celeste is very attached to her grandmother, and knowing that the grandmother is watching a country unravel for the second time is poignant. Acknowledging that part of Latin American history and giving Jewish-Latinas a heroine to root for is a great strength of this book, especially since it manages to use Spanish, Chilean cultural traditions, and Jewish traditions in a way that neither over explains to those of us who know it already nor under explains to those who are unfamiliar.
I would hand this book to any little girl who is already a fan of classic middle grade characters who love to write, like Betsy Ray or Harriet M. Welsch, or to fans of books by Julia Alvarez or Jeanne Birdsall.
AUTHOR: Marjorie Agosín was born in Maryland and raised in Chile. She and her parents, Moises and Frida Agosín, moved to the United States due to the overthrow of the Chilean government by General Pinochet’s military coup. Coming from a South American country and being Jewish, Agosín’s writings demonstrate a unique blending of these cultures. Agosín is well known as a poet, critic, and human activist. She is also a well-known spokesperson for the plight and priorities of women in Third World countries. Her deep social concerns and accomplishments have earned her many awards and recognitions, and she has gained an international reputation among contemporary women of color.
Sarah Hannah Gómez is a school librarian in Northern California with a passion for promoting diverse literature to tweens and teens of all colors. She has an MA from the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature and an MS in library and information science from Simmons College. She blogs at her own website and at YALSA’s The Hub. She is working on a novel and a screenplay.