This summer I finally accepted the inevitable and read The Fault in Our Stars. I was prepared for the waterworks. Then, I read This Star Won’t Go Out: The Life and Words of Esther Grace Earl, the autobiography-hybid book about a young woman with cancer who befriended author John Green and became an inspiration to countless people. This kind of grief I was not prepared for. The words of a young woman who knows she is going to die, but lives in the face of it, were very sobering.
I bring this up, because having just read about Esther Grace, I was in a better position to empathize with the main character of Guadalupe Garcia McCall’s Under the Mesquite. The main character, Lupita, does not suffer from cancer, but her mother does. The effect this disease has on Lupita and her large family is the focus of McCall’s Pura Belpre winning novel-in-verse.
When Lupita’s mother’s disease is first revealed, Lupita attempts to join the church and dedicate her life to God. Her mother says no. “We’ve made other plans,” mother says. “Someday you’ll thank me for this.” Instead, Lupita commits herself to her family, to her poetry, and to drama. Regardless of hurdles and hardships, she shows an aptitude for each.
The trajectory of Lupita’s story is not unusual. The stages of grief are all there. But mixed into the anger and acceptance of cancer’s ugly hold on her mother is Lupita’s story of her identity. Born in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico, Lupita moved with her family to the bilingual border town of Eagle Pass, or El Aguila. As legal immigrants, Lupita and her family are free to jump rope with the border, continuing to visit family on the Mexican side, and even relying on them heavily when Mami’s illness takes a turn for the worse.
Lupita never shows any sense of shame for her background, and indeed embraces it. Her drama teacher, however, tries to teach her to rid herself of her accent, leaving Lupita’s friends to wonder if she has started to abandon her roots. McCall treats this issue very carefully. Losing her accent would be a boon to her acting career (though the reasons for this are varied and problematic), and Lupita knows this. To her, this is not a way of turning her back on her heritage, but taking a purposeful turn towards her future. “What - / because I’m Mexican/ I’m supposed to speak with an accent?/ Should I wear a rebozo too?” (Emphasis by the author.)
As I noted above, Under the Mesquite won the Pura Belpre Author Award in 2012. In their starred review, Kirkus Reviews called it a “promising, deeply felt debut” that “captures the complex lives of teenagers in many Latino and/or immigrant families.” Children’s Literature says, “This is, quite simply, a beautiful book.”
Since I began this review by referencing The Fault in Our Stars and This Star Won’t Go Out, it only tracks that I bring these two books back into the conversation for connections to Under the Mesquite. Stories about cancer are not uncommon, but these two books are, and simply reading them must go a long way towards fostered compassion for those that suffer from this appalling disease. Readers of Under the Mesquite might look to other novels-in-verse for more touching stories. The Best and Hardest Thing by Pat Brisson tells the story of a young pregnant teenager. Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai is the Newbery honor winning book about a Vietnamese immigrant struggling to find a home and put down roots in America.
McCall, Guadalupe Garcia. Under the Mesquite. New York: Lee & Low Books, 2011. ISBN: 9781600604294