Tuesday, June 04, 2024

Borderless, by Jennifer De Leon

Maya may live in a poor section of Guatemala City, but she has big dreams.  She's a scholarship student at a school for fashion and she's making a big impact with her designs.  She's even secured a spot in a fashion show which boasts a large cash prize and a chance to sell her clothing.  Her dreams may be big, but she's making it there slowly but surely.  

However, around her the gangs are taking over the streets in her neighborhood and it's becoming harder and harder to avoid the violence they bring in with them.  When Maya make a series of bad decisions, she finds her life and the life of her mother endangered.  Suddenly, her future in fashion is discarded.  Instead, they must flee north and Maya finds herself on the run and hoping to make it to the United States to request asylum.

The point of the story, of course, is to put a human face on the news stories about refugees at the southern border.  But the novel succeeds by actually spending fairly little time on that subject, concentrating instead on Maya's life in Guatemala.  That she becomes a homeless refugee works better dramatically when we've grown accustomed to her life before.  It also proves frustratingly because so many parts of her life and the story simply get dropped aside.  Her best friend, the contest, her fashion designs, and her boyfriend are ripped away from here and abruptly disappear from her story.  The break between before and after is actually the crux of the story, so while it violates a directive of dramatic narrative, it's effective literary choice here.

There were times when I didn't particularly care for Maya, especially when she endangers herself and her family, but I found her story engrossing nonetheless.  The novel itself won't settle any argument in the immigration debate, but for a young reader trying to understand why people would feel compelled to risk their lives to seek asylum elsewhere, it its educational in a good way.

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