The Living - Matt De La Peña

The Living recently received an Honor from the Pura Belpré committee. The award recognizes of a work which best portrays the Latino cultural experience in a work of literature for children or youth. As I was at the awards announcements, and having known people who served on the committee in the past, I was intrigued. I had read the winning title and the other honor titles, and was impressed with the choices. So here's my review of The Living:

The novel begins with Shy, a young guy working for a snazzy cruise line, offering water to people on the Lido Deck of the ship to combat the heat. Everything is going pretty well until an older gentleman comes out and starts spouting of weird, disconcerting phrases: "You have seen the face of evil."Shy doesn't quite know what to think, so he moves on to a couple of ladies on the other side of the deck. Just as he's handing them their water bottles, he sees movement out of the corner of his eye and realizes the old guy has climbed up the railing and is about the jump. He rushes over the save the man, but he is too weak, and the guy doesn't seem to want to be saved. He falls. [DON'T WORRY, THAT'S NOT A SPOILER!]

When chapter one opens, Shy is on another ship, beginning his next trip, with new passengers. He can't seem to forget the feeling of losing his grip on the old man, though, and it haunts him. Not only that, but he has received news from home that there is an outbreak of the disease that took his grandma from him just a short while ago. To make things worse, there is a mysterious man in a black suit following him around the ship. A storm rumbles in the distance, the waves start to get worse, the sirens go off... and the world goes the hell.

I can't really say too much more since it really would spoil the plot, the surprises, the mystery, and the suspense. I have to say that I went into this book without actually reading a plot synopsis, so I had a totally open mind. I'm glad I didn't know too much at the outset, either, as I was completely thrown by a number of twists. Others I could sort of figure out from the beginning, but nothing to spoil the fun (or terror, really.) 

The Living is terrifying as far as the plot and the action goes. But deeper than that, there is a fully formed cast of characters who really tug at the heart strings. Carmen is one of the girls working for the cruise line, and her father was killed by the same disease that killed Shy's grandma. They have a bond even though they really don't know each other. Shy's roommate is Rodney, an awkward but supportive guy who works in the kitchens. And there's Kevin, an Australian dude who warns Shy about the man in the suit. There are other characters who are just plain mysterious, and I hope the sequel will give us more insight into those characters (the shoe shine man, for instance.)

Depictions of racial difference are played out against a backdrop of class difference, as many of the passengers are wealthy, famous, and important. There are the spoiled, private-school-attending white girls who give shy a hard time for working in various parts of the ship, and there's the rich oil tycoon who's just plain ignorant at times. For example, when the oil baron is chatting up Carmen:
"What's your name?" 
    "Carmen" 
    "Gorgeous name for a gorgeous gal. And where you from, Ms. Carmen?"
    She glanced at Shy for a fraction of a second, then told the man: "I'm from San Diego, sir." 
    "Originally, I mean," the man said. "What race are you?" 
    Carmen was as good as anyone at laying down the fake cheerful vibe. But Shy could tell by her eyes, she wanted to boot dude in the huevos.
Later, he puts his foot even further into his mouth:
"Wow," the man said. "You all look different from the Mexicans we got in Texas." 
    "Believe it or not," Shy told him through a fake-ass grin, "not all Mexicans look the same, sir."
The previous quotation is really just a small part of the dialogue around race and class built into the narrative, but I think it gives a good indication of what sort of fantastic awareness and lesson is underlaying the foundations of the action. Shy and Carmen are often looked at as the lower class, by the passengers, by children from privileged upbringings.

If you like getting hooked within a few pages and you want a narrative written by someone who has a razor-sharp awareness of how diversity plays out in the real world, even in the face of disaster, then you'll love The Living.

Highly Recommended

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