Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Journey of Dreams - an inspiring novel of one girl's escape from the Guatemalan Civil War

Some novels are written from the heart: they  sing with emotion and paint a picture on your soul.  Journey of Dreams, by Marge Pellegrino, is just such a novel.  Set in 1984, Pellegrino tells the story of Tomasa, a young Mayan girl, who must flee from her small village in the Guatemalan mountains during the Guatemalan army's "scorched earth" campaign.
Journey of Dreams
by Marge Pellegrino
London: Frances Lincoln Children's Books, 2009.
ages 12 and up
Tomasa lives with her family high in the Guatemalan mountains, in a native Quiché Maya village.  They are a close-knit family, working the fields, going to the village school, weaving clothes for the local market.  But the army becomes a growing presence in their lives, intimidating local villagers.  After her mother speaks out, complaining to other village women of people becoming sick after chemicals were sprayed by a plane on their fields, Tomasa's family receives threatening notes thrown at their home.  First, Tomasa's mother and older brother flee for their safety, and then a few days later Tomasa's father leaves, taking Tomasa, her younger brother and sister.  The story follows Tomasa's flight for survival, traveling north through Guatemala, Mexico and eventually to the United States.

Pellegrino crafts a compelling story with several fully drawn characters.  Young readers will especially be drawn to Tomasa and Manuel.  Tomasa and her younger brother Manuel each struggle with the psychological impact of their family's separation.  Many times, Tomasa stifles her own emotions as she takes care of her siblings and acts far older than her 13 years.  "As we walk I tuck my feelings into my heart. I hide them away just as Papa tucked our small treasures into the oilcloth and hid them in the earth for when we return." (page 85).

I especially like how Pellegrino shows the power of storytelling: Tomasa's father tells folktales and stories each night, as a way to bring the family together, teach the children lessons, and inspire hope or caution.  The language of dreams and stories is woven throughout Tomasa's story.
"Tonight, I wake up from a dream of the jagged teeth - letters tearing at the wall of our ni'tzja, while I cough green.  In the darkness, I wipe away the spit from the side of my mouth.  I will check in the morning to be sure my fingers and mouth show no trace of green." (p. 39)
At times, I felt that the writing jarred between lyrical descriptions and short, choppy sentences.  The contrast seemed to jolt my reading at times.  But I wonder if this is how a 13 year old might think or write - sometimes with beautiful images, and other times with short, factual sentences.  Tomasa's voice came across authentic and full of feeling.

The end of the story is uplifting, and I would certainly share this with middle school students.  You do not see explicit violence, but you certainly feel the effects of the army's wrath.  While 5th and 6th graders would be able to read this story, it might be harder for them to understand the context.  Pellegrino includes a very helpful author's note at the end, explaining the Guatemalan Civil War and the Sanctuary Movement in the United States.  She also includes a very helpful glossary with Spanish and Quiché words.

Journey of Dreams comes from Pellegrino's work with the Sanctuary Movement, working with refugees from around the world.  She explains in the author's note,
     "The threads of Tomasa's story were spun with the voices of many Central American refugees who came to the United States during the Sanctuary days.  I saw Tomasa in the faces of children bent over papers at Owl and Panther meetings, writing poems and drawing dibujos.  I tasted Tomasa's experience in the food we shared.  I smiled and cried with children like Tomasa, teased them, and was teased in return.  I listened to refugee children telling tales of their journeys.
     I wove these families' stories into Journey of Dreams along with images that rose from pages of books, flickered on screens, and traveled on the voices of refugees and Sanctuary volunteers.  These images haunted my dreams.
     Tomasa's tale represents the stories of many families who were split up and forced to travel separately.  Juana's part in Tomasa's tale represents those families who were never reunited." (p. 245)

Kirkus’ stared review called Journey of Dreams “outstanding.” School Library Journal used words like “well paced” and “suspenseful.” Booklist: “More than the local color, readers will be held by the escape adventure, and even more by the searing family drama.” Publishers Weekly: “At once lyrical and starkly realistic.”
Other reviews:
Times-Union, from Albany, NY

The review copy was sent by the publisher.  Stop by your local bookstore to find a copy, or find it at your local library.

This books is available online at Amazon. If you make a purchase by clicking through to Amazon, Great Kid Books receives a small percentage, which will be used to buy more books to review. Below is the link to Journey of Dreams, and two other amazing books about the experience children have when they are forced to flee their homes: Grab Hands and Run, and The Other Side of Truth.

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