Thursday, March 26, 2009

Read Return to Sender

Julia Alvarez in Return to Sender knows how to characterize the blur in the line between right and wrong. She knows how to make it clear that reality and morality are continuums and not dichotomies of this or that, up or down, or yes or no. There are no absolutes. (Now, there's an oxymoron.) We have a long way to go. 

Alvarez begins with a young man, her protagonist, Tyler, the younger eleven-year-old son in a family who has survived and thrived by running a dairy farm in Vermont. The family's farming heritage is at risk. Tyler's older brother is away at college, mostly unavailable to help out on the farm without jeopardizing his education and eventual career, and Tyler's father has been injured and disabled, perhaps permanently, in a farming accident. Tyler's father can't do the work he normally did. It is unclear when and if he ever will be able to do the work again. Extended family also can't adequately help out. So paying the bills and keeping the farm is at risk. The family needs help or to change their dynamics: selling the farm, moving from their land, doing something entirely different than farming.

Tyler's parents eventually hire undocumented immigrants --- a couple of men --- to assist with the dairy work. One of the immigrant men is married and has three daughters. The oldest, Mari, slowly becomes Tyler's friend and ally, an unfolding as miraculous as springtime. Mari's mother has disappeared in the murky criminal element that arose to fulfill the void created by ambiguities in United States immigrant policies, underfunded policies that for years tacitly approved of undocumented immigrants coming to the United States to work in jobs that citizens in better times didn't want to do.

The analysis of various notions is tenderly at play in Alvarez's book:

  • What is a family?
  • What does it mean to be honest?
  • What good is it to have a law without compassion, or without implementing it and adequately funding its substantial enforcement?
  • What does it mean to be a good neighbor and a friend? What sacrifices are appropriate and necessary of good neighbors and friends? And does all of that that apply only to individuals and not to communities and to nations?
  • What is charity? Is it a weakness or strength?
  • What about religion and the mystical, and gazing into the heavens? Hope?


"... life is about change, change, and more change. 'When you're born as a child, you die as a baby. Just like when you're born as a teenager, you die as a child.'... 'But there are good sides even to bad or sad things happening,' my mom reminds me...."

This is a coming of age adventure where a boy and a girl have more love and compassion than the men and the women, where a couple of families have greater diplomacy toward each other than the greatest nations on earth do. So it would be good to take their advice and look into the heavens and contemplate the beauty of the night before flying apart.

Not just one star but five.


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