We Were Here by Matt De La Pena. Delacorte Press (Random House). October 2009. Reviewed from ARC supplied by publisher.
The Plot: Miguel's tenth grade ends with being sentenced to one year in a group home. Plus he has to write a journal. Considering what he did, he's surprised, and tells his mother, "Yo, Ma, this isn't so bad, right? I thought those people would lock me up and throw away the key." His mother says nothing. "She didn't say anything back, though.. Didn't look at me either. Matter of fact, she didn't look at me all the way up till the day she had to drive me to Juvenile Hall."
Miguel wants to do his time. Doesn't want to make friends. But somehow, he finds himself running away to Mexico with Rondell and Mong. Miguel, half-Mexican who doesn't speak Spanish; Rondell, big, black, strong, and slow; and Mong, Asian American with a scarred face, who is... well, let's just say he greeted Miguel by spitting on him. And before Miguel got to the group home? Broke someone's arm.
When I call this a "road trip" book, I mean it in the best possible way. A classic road trip story is at its heart a buddy story; group of guys hit the road, have a few laughs, share some tears (or some other manly type of emotion), meet a girl or two, bond, learn more about each other and themselves. It's a journey that is physical; but also an internal journey. We Were Here delivers all that; but by throwing away most of the usual "road trip" trappings. Instead of three friends, it's three people who barely know each other; instead of a "last trip before graduation/spring break" reason, they are on to Mexico; instead of a parent's car and credit card, it's buses, walking, and stolen cash. There are still laughs; pretty girls; a party. But there is also racism, danger, and the knowledge that these are three kids who ran away from a group home. Readers are going to want to know what happens next to Miguel, how he's going to survive one more day.
De La Pena does not take the easy way out; never does he say that these three teenagers are innocent. But he doesn't say they are guilty. We only know, for sure, what Rondell and Mong did because Miguel steals their files from the group home when he steals the petty cash that funds their journey. Some questions are left for the reader to ponder: if these kids had come from different homes, homes with more money, what would have happened to them? Would they have ended up in a juvenile group home? And when, finally, Miguel admits what he did, the question remains. Is Miguel guilty? Or innocent? Is what happened just?
While at the group home, and later on the run, Miguel thinks of the times before he did what he did; times with his parents and his older brother, Diego. His father is the son of Mexican immigrants and died in the war, during Miguel's freshman year at high school. His mother is white. And Diego is a dream of an older brother; yeah, he teases his younger brother, and they wrestle and fight, as brothers do, but Diego is also all Miguel wants to be; Diego looks like their father, can always make their Moms laugh, is their grandparents' favorite, popular in school, and all the girls love him. The tightness of Miguel's family unit contrasts drastically to the time in the group home, where he can barely call home for his weekly phone call.
Miguel doesn't want to make friends in the group home; he just wants to do his time. But he has to do something instead of sitting around all day. So he reads; the collection of books available are limited, but they are, well, classics: The Color Purple, Of Mice and Men, The Catcher in the Rye. Miguel shares his thoughts on each, and they also push him, to think, to find himself in each of these very different books, and to believe.
The family dynamics, the road trip, the books, they make this a great book. But what is truly fantastic and marvelous is Miguel's voice. I fell for it by page 2; by page 40, I was head over heels. De La Pena has created a character so full and vibrant that you forget he's not real. Me going all gooshy about it won't help; so here are some choice quotes from the ARC.
Here's the thing: I was probably gonna write a book when I got older anyways. About what it's like growing up on the levee in Stockton, where every other person you meet has missing teeth or is leaning against a liquor store wall begging for change to buy beer.... Or maybe this book would just be something about me and my brother, Diego. How we hang mostly by ourselves, pulling corroded-looking fish out of the murky levee water and throwing them back.
I realized something about myself. I really meant what I said. I didn't care what happened one way or the other. After what happened back in Stockton it's like I'm already dead. What I told Mong was the straight-up truth. I wish it wasn't, but it was. And what makes me sad as hell is that back when I was a kid I cared so much, man. About every little thing. My mom and pop, Diego, the levee. Just being alive. And breathing. Following my big bro around. But things are different now.
© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy