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Friday, April 25, 2014

Caminar, written by Skila Brown. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2014. $18.00 ages 10 and up


I walked beside him. We were
the same height, same size, same,
except he was not afraid
of the bullets on his chest,
except he knew what he was
doing, except
he had a plan.
I asked Paco, "Your Mama
let you be a rebel?"

If you have read my blog prior to today, you will know that I am enamored of the power of words, and particularly of a writer's ability to pen a verse novel. That, to me, must be one of the most difficult writing to attempt. It requires careful research to fill one's head with all of the pertinent information the writer wants to share, and then paring it down to beautifully chosen words that carry the story and impact the reader.

I had read only one review of Caminar. It sparked my need to know more about the war that raged in Guatemala for so many years (1960 to 1996). When it arrived this week, I was keen to sit and learn more.

It is dedicated 'In memory of the more than 200,000 people who were killed or disappeared in Guatemala' and adds 'May they always be remembered."

With that thought in mind, Skila Brown embarks on a fictional story of the village people of Guatemala, and the seemingly endless war that changed their lives forever. It begins in Chopan, Guatemala, 1981, with a boy named Ah Xochil (Carlos). He is young, obedient, and just old enough to provide some help. His mother keeps him safe from harm, and discourages his burgeoning need to be 'a man', saying he is not yet ready. Carlos is a good son, and his mama is proud of him.

The first poems give readers a clear view of village life, of Carlos and his friends, and of some of the conflicts that play out among its inhabitants. The war and its resulting unrest are a constant threat to all who live in the mountains. The beautifully descriptive poems reflect Carlos' point of view as to what is happening all around him. The army camps nearby for a time, seeking help in ferreting out  traitors and threatening those who might protect them. A band of rebels also passes through, without threat, but garnering discomfort. People living in remote villages know little about the civil war, and fear everyone.

Young boys are convinced or forced to join the military, or the rebels, as the fighting escalates. Protesters often disappear, never returning to their village and its people. Suspecting that villagers harbor fugitives and rebels, the army often annihilates a whole village in a bid for power and the upper hand.

His mother has a warning for Carlos:

  "Listen to me. You
will run, When you hear
the first sign of trouble,
         you will go.

We will meet in the mountains,
      go as deep as you can.
Do not slow down, do not
           look back."

While gathering mushrooms for his mother's soup, Carlos hears the gunfire and the screaming that comes from his village. He does as he is told, and runs. When the noises cease, he begins the upward climb to his grandmother's mountain village. Along they way he meets up with a rebel group on their way to a larger camp. Spending time with them, and hearing their stories, forces Carlos to think seriously about his future. Ensuing events precipitate his final decision.

This is a powerful read, clearly and carefully written to allow us knowledge of this young boy, his experiences and his emotions. It offers a picture of a country in conflict, and the mental and physical toll war takes on children whose lives are turned upside down by events beyond their control.

An opening note to the reader, a Spanish glossary and a short question and answer section with the author will encourage interested readers to learn more.

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