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Return to Sender Hardcover – January 13, 2009
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The story begins with a young boy named Tyler who has grown up on the farm that has been run by his family for generations. His older brother and sister are uninterested in the back-breaking work it takes to keep the farm going, but Tyler dreams of running the farm one day, even though he is only eleven. When his grandfather dies suddenly and his father is badly injured in a farm accident, the family resorts to the last hope to keep their farm going: Mexican labor. They hire three men to help with the farm work and live on the farm, but they are surprised to find the men arrive with three young girls. Maria, Luby, and Ofie are with their father, but no one knows where their mother is. She left to return to Mexico almost a year ago to see her dying mother, but after calling Maria's father to let them know she was returning, she disappeared and they haven't heard from her since.
Tyler is having a difficult time with the new residents of the farm. He believes in his country and the constitution and hiring illegal immigrants is breaking the law. Therefore, he is very upset by the turn of events on the farm, and he is torn because he knows this is the only way to save the farm. When the girls are enrolled in his school and Maria is in his class, he gets to know them as more than just illegal immigrants, and gets to know the crueler side of his peers. While Ofie and Luby are US citizens and born in the states, Maria was born in Mexico, and the kids at school don't let her forget it. Slowly, though, the two families grow to care for one another deeply. The girls think of Tyler's grandmother as their own grandmother, Tyler's family invites Maria's family over for dinners and holidays, and all are devastated when Maria's uncle Felipe is picked up by immigration. Now the family must find a way to avoid immigration, run the farm with less men, and find out the truth of where Maria's mother is.
This is a bitter sweet story that shows both sides of a controversial situation. Chapters alternate between Tyler's story told in prose and Maria's story in the form of letters to her mother, the President of the US, and Guadalupe. It makes the reader understand that immigration is more than just a numbers and borders game- real people are the focus and their lives are in the balance. Not to mention, these people are hard workers who just want to support their families, and they have become a strong support system for businesses that couldn't continue without their help.
I found the message to be well thought out, but the writing was just plain awkward. I would have been fine if only Maria's story was choppier, but Tyler's was too. And the beginning where Tyler is concerned with the legality and moral aspects of the new farm workers, it is simply overdone. It sounded like a robot: "Illegal immigrants are illegal, the constitution is the bestest thing in the world, we follow the constitution in the bestest country in the world, therefore we don't break the law, and illegal immigrants are breaking the law, so they are all bad. Very bad." It was simply silly. It made it hard for me to take the book seriously for a while. Tyler's opinions clearly changed as the story continued, but it was almost as if Maria's family were real aliens from outer space and no one knew about them until now. This part I find hard to believe. It is set in 2005, and I find it hard to believe a family in VT would have no contact with a Mexican family until then. This part of the book was much less realistic and much more contrived.
The book is still an interesting one, and might be best as a school assignment with teacher guidance, or one read with a parent. I don't see many kids picking this story up and sticking with it long enough to get to the important messages. The writing is hard to peg because it is so awkward, but not necessarily written at a lower reading level. The topic is a great one for kids and adults at all ages. It is also an interesting choice for a student learning Spanish, because Spanish words, phrases, and sentences are scattered throughout. Basically, I would read the story first before giving it to a student, and if you are going to use it in your classroom or read with your child, be aware of the flaws in order to reap the benefits of such a story.
Alvarez begins with a young man, her protagonist, Tyler, the younger eleven-year-old son in a family who has survived and thrived by running a dairy farm in Vermont. The family's farming heritage is at risk. Tyler's older brother is away at college, mostly unavailable to help out on the farm without jeopardizing his education and eventual career, and Tyler's father has been injured and disabled, perhaps permanently, in a farming accident. Tyler's father can't do the work he normally did. It is unclear when and if he ever will be able to do the work again. Extended family also can't adequately help out. So paying the bills and keeping the farm is at risk. The family needs help or to change their dynamics: selling the farm, moving from their land, doing something entirely different than farming.
Tyler's parents eventually hire undocumented immigrants --- a couple of men --- to assist with the dairy work. One of the immigrant men is married and has three daughters. The oldest, Mari, slowly becomes Tyler's friend and ally, an unfolding as miraculous as springtime. Mari's mother has disappeared in the murky criminal element that arose to fulfill the void created by ambiguities in United States immigrant policies, underfunded policies that for years tacitly approved of undocumented immigrants coming to the United States to work in jobs that citizens in better times didn't want to do.
The analysis of various notions is tenderly at play in Alvarez's book:
What is a family?
What does it mean to be honest?
What good is it to have a law without compassion, or without implementing it and adequately funding its substantial enforcement?
What does it mean to be a good neighbor and a friend?
What sacrifices are appropriate and necessary of good neighbors and friends? And does all of that that apply only to individuals and not to communities and to nations?
What is charity? Is it a weakness or strength?
What about religion and the mystical, and gazing into the heavens? Hope?
"... life is about change, change, and more change. 'When you're born as a child, you die as a baby. Just like when you're born as a teenager, you die as a child.'... 'But there are good sides even to bad or sad things happening,' my mom reminds me...."
This is a coming of age adventure where a boy and a girl have more love and compassion than the men and the women do, where a couple of families have greater diplomacy toward each other than the greatest nations on earth do for each other. So it would be good to take their advice and look into the heavens and contemplate the beauty of the night before flying apart.
Not just one star but five.