Friday, November 4, 2011

Under the Mesquite

Garcia McCall, Guadalupe. Under the Mesquite. New York: Lee & Low Books Inc., 2011. Ages 12 and up. 9781600604294   

Guadalupe Garcia McCall’s poignant debut novel-in-verse carries readers over the course of Lupita’s high school years as her adolescence unfolds in the shadow of her mother’s cancer. Throughout the novel Lupita struggles to navigate her often conflicted sense of place, caught between the past and her future: her role as both child and adult in the family; and as an immigrant still strongly rooted in her homeland but also learning to adapt to her new home. She dreams of acting, writing and going to college, but as the oldest of eight siblings, must balance these aspirations with her familial responsibilities. Woven into the story are Lupita’s memories of her childhood in Mexico. While most of the book takes place in Lupita’s present, these memories of Mexico serve to contrast her life before and after her mother’s illness and her family’s arrival in the United States. Her memories are of a happier, more peaceful, and more colorful life.

In Under the Mesquite Garcia McCall manages to create a multidimensional protagonist many young adults, regardless of background, can identify with. Young adults who have experienced the loss of a parent to a terminal illness will find themselves in Lupita’s emotional journey through her mother’s treatments and failing health. Immigrants and children of immigrants will see themselves in Lupita as she searches for a sense of place and identity in a new country. Teens in general will identify with Lupita as she makes her way through the social pressures of high school and tries to understand what it means to grow up.

Author interviews reveal that Under the Mesquite is semi-autobiographical. Like Lupita, Garcia McCall also emigrated from Mexico to Eagle Pass, Texas, a border town, as a young child. Perhaps it is this especially personal tie to her protagonist that enabled Garcia McCall to convey so well the emotions, in all the joyful and heartbreaking moments, of her characters. Garcia McCall’s poetic imagery captures the sights and sounds of Lupita’s world. It is easy to visualize potato skins falling like "old maple leaves" and to hear the sighing of a plastic bag and the whispering of a pencil on paper. Equally vivid is the way in which Garcia McCall depicts Lupita's relationship with her siblings. She struggles to be independent and to move away from her family all the while being so deeply entrenched in her role within the group. There is a clear sense of the bond, at times alternating between accepting and resentful, but always loving, that keeps them together through petty sibling disagreements and through tragedy:   

The six of us sisters
were round beads knotted side by side,
like pearls on a necklace,
strung so close together
we always made one another cry. 

Much like the mesquite from the book’s title, a tree with the ability to adapt and survive in almost any type of environment, Lupita is resilient and able to maintain a sense of hope despite the pain and grief she experiences during her mother’s illness and death. This book had my heart in its grip from the very first poem, "the story of us," in which Lupita searches her mother's purse "stealing secretos / mining for knowledge." I saw an image of myself as a young person, the child of immigrants who guarded their secretos tightly too, searching my own mother's purse unsure of what I was looking for or what I might find, but knowing there were things to be discovered. Highly recommended!

The book includes a glossary of names, Spanish words and cultural references. Check out the Lee & Low Books Webpage for Under the Mesquite for some nice features including a few audio clips of Garcia McCall reading poems from the book.