Oh boy, Miguel, do I feel you. After having a less-than-stellar start of the year, I too have felt that being Ines is often a very great trouble. Of course, me being a 30-year-old woman living in the 21st century, my worries and concerns involve such things as professional advancement, family tensions, whether to lean in, lean back, or lean out, and an assortment of trials and tribulations that have no place here. For Miguel, a New Mexican boy in the 1950s, his troubles are pretty straightforward: He wants to go up to the Mountains of Sangre de Cristo even though his family thinks he’s too young to do so.
Ah, if only wishes were ever that clear-cut. Unfortunately for human beings, and fortunately for this book, wants are rarely ever that simple.
Set in a rural community of sheepherders, large chunks of this novel are devoted to bucolic descriptions of farm life in the mid-twentieth century. Joseph Krumgold, the author of the Newbery-award winning book, shot a documentary of Mexican-American shepherds before sitting down to write ….and now Miguel. It shows. Large swaths of this book relate in painstaking detail the mundane tasks of branding ewes, the regional festivities set around harvest, and the religious devotion to San Ysidro, patron saints of farmers. How fascinating or how mind-numbing these parts will be depends, per usual, on the reader. I can’t decide whether children will find the antiquated customs as a peek into a cool alien world or simply alienating.
Truth be told, having never been much interested in rural life, I found myself dozing off at times until a beautiful simile would wake me from slumber. And the similes he creates can be gorgeous. Take this vibrant description of Miguel’s hair: “…I couldn’t comb my hair like they did because my hair is short, just stubby, like a field that’s been grazed over.” Or a simple explanation for people who don’t understand why some of us prefer to keep our expectations low:
To hope so much, it’s like carrying what’s heavy, like too big a load of wood from the wood-pile. And you don’t know whether to try and drop some halfway, and you’re afraid if you do you’ll drop the whole load anyway before you get to the house. Until your brain gets tired from thinking what to do, and your arms feel like they’re ready to fall off. So that the next time you just give up and make two trips instead of one. That’s the way I felt about hoping. I didn’t want to try anymore.
The novel does go beyond the instructional aspect of sheepherding. After a first-half that seems focused on situating the reader in Miguel’s world, the second part of the book showcases an emotional shift that made the story soar. Miguel’s desire to go with the rest of his clan up to the mountains weighs so much on his spirit that he prays to San Ysidro to make it happen. His prayer goes answered, but not without heartbreaking consequences. It’s the old and universal truth, wrapped up in a coming-of-age-in-the- American-Southwest story: Be careful what you wish for.
It’s a sobering message for a middle-grade book, but I’ve never been of the opinion that we should shield children from the hardship of life. Believe me, they’re probably already aware of it and it they aren’t, it will only feel much worse when they discover it later on. This isn’t, though, a story without hope. The ending is not weepy nor defeatist in any way. It is, however, a story about a boy becoming a man, in the way that a man was defined in that community at that particular time in history. And as such, the book can only be honest about what growing up is: sacrificing in order to get what you want.