Another task on Book Riot’s 2019 Read Harder Challenge is to read an #ownvoices novel set in Mexico or Central America. I always read through the suggestions, make note of what looks interesting, and then check to see what’s available at my libraries. Summer of the Mariposas by Guadalupe Garcia McCall looked like an interesting choice, and it was available at the library in the next town over, so onto the list it went.
Odilia and her four sisters (Juanita, twins Velia and Delia, and Pita, the youngest) are out swimming at their forbidden swimming hole when they discover a dead man floating in the water. They don’t want to call the authorities, because that would mean constant surveillance of their beloved swimming hole; telling their exhausted, overworked, newly single mother would only get them in trouble, because they weren’t supposed to be swimming in the first place. Instead, the girls decide to load up their father’s car (he left a year ago, he’s not using it anyway) with the body and drive it to the dead man’s home address in Mexico, which they discover on the ID stuffed into a pocket, along with a stack of cash.
But it won’t be a simple trip. A ghostly weeping woman known as La Llorona informs Odilia that this is going to be a journey that will transform all of them. She gives Odilia a magical ear pendant to help her along the way, and the girls set off towards adventure. When dropping off the body doesn’t exactly herald the reception they thought it would, they continue on to their abuelita’s house, meeting a witch, a fortune-telling blind woman, a warlock disguised as a donkey, a seriously creepy pack of owls, and a chupacabras. La Llorona appears on and off throughout the story to guide them, and the Aztec queen Tonantzin offers magical assistance through the gifted ear pendant, but what they really find throughout their journey is the strength of their bond and the deep love that exists between them and their mother.
Phew. There’s a LOT going on in this book. The inside flap of this book pitches this as ‘a Mexican American retelling of The Odyssey,’ and I think a big part of the reason I failed to connect to this book is that it’s been…somewhere around twenty-four years since I had anything to do with that particular piece. I really wish I’d been able to draw the parallels between the stories, but it’s been far too long. I also lack any kind of background in any Mexican or Aztec folklore, so that definitely didn’t help. Had I been more fully versed in these things, I think reading this book would have been a different experience and I would’ve felt more connected and more deeply invested.
It’s a lovely, well-written book, although I had to seriously suspend my disbelief in the beginning to accept that the sisters would all just pick up and leave with what seemed like no concern for how their mother would react to them having left without even a note. And that’s not even considering the fact that the girls were seemingly okay with riding in a stuffy car in the summer heat with a waterlogged dead body. Talking owls and donkeys, sure, I’ll buy that; teenage girls chill with sitting next to a dead body for a lengthy car ride? Mmmm, no. The relationship between the girls and their grandmother is lovely, however, and their reunion with their mother and eventual showdown with their father are both handled extremely well. And I absolutely adored the bits of Spanish sprinkled throughout the story (there’s a glossary in back), and the chance to see Mexico through the sisters’ eyes.
So this wasn’t quite the book for me, but if you enjoy retellings, stories of bonding between sisters, and stories with magical and fantastical elements, it may be the book for you!