By Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez
DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Zach is eighteen. He is bright and articulate. He’s also an alcoholic and in rehab instead of high school, but he doesn’t remember how he got there. He’s not sure he wants to remember. Something bad must have happened. Something really, really bad. Remembering sucks and being alive – well, what’s up with that?
MY TWO CENTS: Benjamin Alire Saenz’s Last Night I Sang to the Monster (2009) is a powerful and heart-wrenching story of a young man’s encounter with trauma and violence and his journey toward healing. Eighteen-year-old Zach wakes up in a rehabilitation center far from his home in El Paso, TX for what he thinks is his abuse of alcohol, but in reality, he cannot remember why he’s there or how he got there. Throughout the narrative, Zach reflects on moments in his life that might have led to his arrival at a rehabilitation center. His therapist/counselor, Adam, encourages him to remember the event that landed him at the center so that he can begin healing; however, the pain is too great and Zach remains emotionally paralyzed for much of the novel. At the center, Zach meets a diverse group of people that struggle with addiction and mental illness, and he is forced to contend with his own struggles; however, his refusal to remember leaves him more vulnerable to pain. He meets an older man, Rafael, who is at the center seeking treatment for his alcoholism, which worsened after the death of his son. Zach looks at Rafael as a father figure, and in return, Rafael provides advice and guidance for processing pain and trauma. Rafael shares with Zach that one of the ways to get the “monster” to stop hurting is to sing to it. When Rafael leaves the center, Zach is distraught and appears to be spiraling down again. Zach must learn to sing to the monster if he wishes to find healing and one day leave the center.
Last Night I Sang to the Monster is a beautiful novel. Through Saenz’s prose the reader is privy to Zach’s inner pain and struggle. Saenz’s captures the complex relationship between addiction and trauma in such a way that the reader cannot escape until we know that Zach will be okay. It is obvious through Zach’s memories that varying forms of violence have always been a part of his upbringing, and it is once they culminate into a catastrophic event, that he is forced to deal with it. The importance of remembering is palpable throughout the novel. As a reader, I begged Zach to remember so that I could understand why he’s at the rehabilitation center; however, as Zach recounted his story, I felt that maybe remembering would be too painful. The reader’s investment in a character is a sign of an incredible author and remarkable story. Last Night addresses an abundance of issues ranging from alcoholism, abuse, and death to think about ways of healing and living differently. As a part of Latina/o young adult literature, Saenz’s novel stands out not only because of its wonderful prose but because the issue of addiction and its consequences on the self and others is a conversation that requires more attention. Overall, Last Night I Sang to the Monster demands to be read multiple times in order to really appreciate Zach’s healing process and Saenz’s marvelous words.
One of the aspects of the novel that I find most appealing is the discussions of how trauma and healing affect families. Zach’s alcoholism extends from a much longer history of abuse in his family, and he is forced to contend with this reality when his brother murders his parents. Saenz captures the perplexity of surviving a traumatic event and suggests that such survival does not always mean one has healed. Zach’s healing process is far from linear, and at times, it feels as if he is not moving or is instead regressing. However, it is precisely these movements or lack thereof that make the novel feel that much more real. Dealing with trauma on an individual, familial, and communal level is an on-going process. Zach’s often refusal and fear to face his monster further reveals how difficult healing can be. That the title itself suggests that Zach eventually sings to the monster simultaneously sheds light on the role that hope plays in healing processes. A few other Latina/o young adult texts that deal with issues of healing, trauma, addiction, and/or illness include Isabel Quintero’s Gabi A Girl in Pieces, Juan Felipe Herrera’s Downtown Boy, E.E. Charlon-Trujillo’s Fat Angie, and Gloria Velazquez’s Tyrone’s Betrayal.
AUTHOR: Benjamin Alire Sáenz is an award-winning American poet, novelist and writer of children’s books. He was born at Old Picacho, New Mexico, the fourth of seven children, and was raised on a small farm near Mesilla, New Mexico. He graduated from Las Cruces High School in 1972. That fall, he entered St. Thomas Seminary in Denver, Colorado where he received a B.A. degree in Humanities and Philosophy in 1977. He studied Theology at the University of Louvain in Leuven, Belgium from 1977 to 1981. He was a priest for a few years in El Paso, Texas before leaving the order. In 1985, he returned to school, and studied English and Creative Writing at the University of Texas at El Paso where he earned an M.A. degree in Creative Writing. He studied as a PhD student at the University of Iowa and Stanford University. Before completing his Ph.D., he moved back to the border and began teaching at the University of Texas at El Paso in the bilingual MFA program. He continues to teach in the Creative Writing Department at the University of Texas at El Paso.
Sonia Alejandra Rodríguez has been an avid reader since childhood. Her literary world was first transformed when she read Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Última as a high school student and then again as a college freshman when she was given a copy of Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. Sonia’s academic life and activism are committed to making diverse literature available to children and youth of color. Sonia received her B.A. in English from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of California, Riverside, where she focuses her dissertation on healing processes in Latina/o Children’s and Young Adult Literature.