Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Review: Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan

Pam Munoz Ryan
Title: Esperanza Rising
Illustrator: Joe Cepeda
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Publication Date: 2000
ISBN: 0-439-12041-1

Esperanza had everything: a loving father and mother, servants, and a vineyard in Mexico. The day before her thirteenth birthday, every changes. Her father dies, leaving the land to his brothers as the law decrees. After Esperanza’s mother turns down a marriage proposal by the eldest of her husband’s brothers, the house and the vineyards are burned to the ground. Forced to accept the proposal or flee, Esperanza and her mother leave in secret with the help of their former servants. Now, Esperanza and her mother face a new life as farm workers in California during the Great Depression. When her mother falls ill, Esperanza must let go of the past and take on her mother’s responsibilities on the farm, working to bring in the meager pay to support herself, to pay her mother’s hospital bills, and to save enough money to bring her grandmother to them.

Esperanza Rising is a story of Cinderella in reverse: the princess becomes a pauper. But in becoming a pauper, Esperanza’s character grows in depth and maturity. She begins to see people as individuals rather than as extensions of their social class. This lesson is made stronger through the setting and time chosen by the author.

Set during the Great Depression in 1930, Esperanza is the daughter of a vineyard plantation owner in Mexico, little affected by the poverty of others or by the Mexican Revolution that has already occurred. She likes the son of a family servant, Miguel, but “between them ran a deep river.” After losing everything, her father, the vineyard, their home, Esperanza and her mother flee in secret to California with the help of their former servants.

Already Esperanza is faced with poverty, depending on others for food and the clothes on her back, yet Esperanza still looks at the people around her through the eyes of the wealthy. Those people are poor and dirty and uneducated, not her. Gradually, through her mother’s example, she begins to see the shame she brings to her mother through her actions. When her mother falls ill, Esperanza must take over the jobs her mother did in order to bring some money in. Esperanza grows into a strong, young woman who comes to care for others, whatever their station in life may be. The river is gone between Esperanza and Miguel.

Details bring the story to life. Each chapter is named after a food that is to be harvested: grapes, papayas, figs, and more. The year passes in this manner. Time is not noted by months but rather by the harvesting seasons on a farm. The importance of the land is also felt through the ritual Esperanza and her father share. They lay with their ear to the ground and listen for the earth’s heartbeat.

Physical descriptions of the people around Esperanza paint a picture of the life she lives. The straw hats of the campesinos in their baggy pants, bandanas, and long-sleeved shirts ready to work in the grape fields as the August sun beats down from above paint a picture of the hard work that is to come. The appearance of her friends after a dust storm where their “faces were so encrusted with dry dirt that they reminded Esperanza of cracked pottery” adds to the sense of grittiness that a dust storm leaves behind.

Other details, such as physical appearances, rituals and celebrations, food, and personal names add to the Mexican setting and culture the story is built around. Mama had long dark hair worn in a braided crown and her fair, creamy skin. Papa’s eyes were shaped like fat, brown almonds. Hortensia was shorter with the features and darker skin of a Zapotec Indian. Some of the celebrations specific to the Hispanic culture and/or the Catholic religion include Quinceaneras and the altar to the Virgin Mary. Some of the food they ate included machaca burritos, tortillas, and flan de almendras. The names of the characters are Hispanic: Esperanza Ortega, Ramona, Sixto, Hortensia, Miguel, Alfonso, and Marisol Rodriguez, to name a few.

The Spanish language is expertly interwoven throughout the story. Every word or phrase written in Spanish is then followed by an English translation, whether it is in the dialogue or in the third person narration. After a while, though, this consistent method of translation gets to be redundant. At times translation is necessary, but there are other times when the context alone would suffice. The addition of a glossary or footnotes may have relieved the writing of its choppiness when a translation was necessary.

All of these factors, the details, the names, the characters’ features, the rituals and celebrations, and the Spanish language, brought with them the sense that the story was written by someone who knew the people of the story and their lives. This is confirmed when reading the author’s note at the end. There you discover that the story is based on her grandmother, Esperanza Ortega, a story that was told to her (the author) when she was a young child.

Review excerpts:
Book Report (January/February 2001) “Readers will sympathize with Esperanza as she sheds her patrician upbringing and adapts to circumstances to survive.”

Booklist (December 1, 2000) “Ryan writes movingly in clear, poetic language that children will sink into....” (Gr. 5-8)

Horn Book (January/February 2001) “...a poignant look at the realities of immigration.”

Kirkus Review (October 1, 2000) “Her (Ryan’s) style is engaging, her characters appealing, and her story is on little heard in children’s fiction. It bears telling to a wider audience.” (9-15)

Publishers Weekly (July 1, 2002) “With a hint of magical realism, this robust novel set in 1930 captures a Mexican girl’s fall from riches and her immigration to California.” (Ages 8-12)

School Library Journal (October 2000) “Except for the evil uncles, all of the characters are rounded, their motives genuine, with class issues honestly portrayed. Easy to booktalk, useful in classroom discussions, and accessible as pleasure reading, this well-written novel belongs in all collection.” (Gr 6-9)

Pura Belpre Award 2002
ALA Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults 2001
Smithsonian Best Books 2000
Publisher’s Weekly Best Children’s Books 2000
L.A. Times Best Books of 2000
Excellence in a Work of Fiction Award 2001 (Children’s Literature Council of Southern California)
Judy Goddard/Libraries Limited Arizona Young Adult Author Award 2001
Jane Addams Children’s Book Award 2001
Colorado Children’s Book Award Nominee 2003
Americas Award Honor Book 2000
Texas Bluebonnet Award Nominee 2002-2003
South Carolina Junior Book Award Nominee 2002-2003
ALA Notable Children’s Book 2002
Judy Lopez Memorial Award 2001
Young Hoosier Book Award Nominee 2002-2003
IRA Notable Book for a Global Society 2001
NCSS/CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People 2001
Los Angeles Times Book Prize Finalist 2001
New York Public Library 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing

Add a history lesson on migrant farm workers during the Great Depression after reading
Esperanza Rising, and include stories from the perspective of the Oklahoma migrant workers. Children of the Dust Bowl : the true story of the school at Weedpatch Camp by Jerry Stanley (1992) describes the plight of the migrant workers who traveled from the Dust Bowl to California during the Depression.

Add other, more recent, examples of the life of migrant farmworkers. A good nonfiction book is
La Causa : the migrant farmworkers' story by Dana Catharine de Ruiz and Richard Larios (1993). This book includes eyewitness accounts of the working conditions experienced by the farmworkers, including Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta in the 1960’s. Voices from the fields : children of migrant farmworkers tell their stories with interviews and photographs by S. Beth Atkin (1993) includes poems and stories from nine children living and working today in California’s Salinas Valley. Would you have joined the strike, or not? Answer this question from the different perspectives.


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