14-year-old loose in Guatemala

When almost-Hurricane Irene knocked a big tree onto the neighbor’s house yesterday, it put an exclamation point near the end of an odd summer. Vince had some big plans for the summer, but those all got wiped away by the notification from the nation’s oldest public school that he would need to attend summer school if he didn’t want to repeat eighth-grade Latin. With the Parent Imperfect pressing for other options, Vince insisted that he would do summer school, and he did.

Curiously, this decision put the PI on path straight to Experienced Goods, a thrift store in Brattelboro, VT. Always on the prowl for good used books, the PI found a treasure trove here. Even Liz, who is an avid reader, but a crusader for no more books in the house, bought a few. Among the many eye0catchers, the PI  stumbled upon one called Todos Santos, by Deborah Clearman. Besides meaning “All Saints” in Spanish, the title is also the name of a well-known indigenous town in the Guatemalan highlands. Friends of the PI studied Spanish in Todos Santos in the 1990s, so he knows something of the town.

The cover blurb for Todos Santos commits the novel to telling the story of a middle-aged North American woman who decides to take her 14-year-old son–who has just chosen to flunk out of eighth grade, rather than attend summer school–to Guatemala. The trip is allegedly designed for Isaac to find himself, but we know that it is the mother who seeks to find her way out of a dead marriage and a generally meaningless life.

Does the name, Ruby Begonia, strike a familiar note? Todos Santos turned out to be less than great literature, but that didn’t keep the PI from devouring it while he and Liz camped in relentless rain at Jamiaca State Park (a delightful place, by the way).

The author captured many details of a Central America near and dear to the PI, but lost some credibility by getting silly details incorrect. If you are going to talk about Central America’s favorite pollo rostizado chain, how can you call it “Campero Pollo?” And if you want to lend the text authenticity by inserting Spanish phrases at the right moments, why does the Guatemalan waitress say,  “¿Y a tomar? to get a drink order?

That said, Clearman has definitely spent time in Todos Santos and does capture something of the feeling of that very different place. An important sub-plot surrounds the details of an attack on Japanese tourists by local indigenous people who believed that the tourists were connected to a Satanic cult out to steal the town’s babies. In 2000, such an attack did occur in Todos Santos, and Clearman manages to gain an interesting perspective on the tragedy in her story.

Isaac’s mother puts the boy in the care of her sister in the seemingly safe tourist town of Antigua Guatemala, while Mom goes off to do art and find love (or at least lust) in Todos Santos. With the aunt ridiculously asleep at the wheel, Isaac finds his way straight to an Internet café. In that den of iniquity, he hooks up with a pot-smoking teenager from New Jersey who is more than ready to show him the ropes. In the blink of an eye, the two find themselves, quite improbably, in the middle of the bar scene of the steamy Caribbean outpost of Livingston. Before he can even adjust to the humidity, Isaac is up to his neck in an adventure that brings both him and his mother to a precipice.

So much for Todos Santos. For the time being, Liz and the PI have opted for other, less dramatic but hardly more believable, precipices.

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