Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan

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“‘The fact remains, Esperanza, that you, for instance, have a better education than most people’s children in this country. But no one is likely to recognize that or take the time to learn it. Americans see us as one big, brown group who are good for only manual labor'” (Ryan 2000, p. 187).

“Something seemed very wrong about sending people away from their own ‘free country’ because they had spoken their minds” (Ryan 2000, p. 208).

As I mentioned in my Goodreads review of this book, I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as some of the others I’ve read for this blog. Don’t get me wrong; I really love historical fiction, and I see this as an important part of America’s history to reflect on. This particular story, however, did not pack nearly as much of an emotional punch as some of the other historical fiction I’ve read. That being said, I really enjoyed the historical elements that were present, as well as the themes of family and perseverance that permeated the novel. It’s a decent read, but certainly not one of my favorites so far.

Esperanza Rising follows the story of twelve-year-old Esperanza, a young girl living an almost fairy-tale life on her ranch in Aguascalientes, Mexico. At the beginning of the story, Esperanza lives a charmed life, with a house full of servants who wait on her hand and foot. Most important in her life are her father, mother, and Abuelita, who dote on her and fulfill every request she might possibly have. The night before her thirteenth birthday, Esperanza’s father is murdered by bandits, leaving her and her family at the mercy of her two powerful and money-hungry uncles. When her mother refuses to marry one of them for money, the uncles arrange to have the ranch burned to the ground, leaving Esperanza and her mother to flee the country in search of work in America. Now living as penniless laborers, Esperanza and her mother must build an entirely new life in America while they wait to be reunited with Abuelita, who remains in Mexico due to failing health. Esperanza Rising is the story of courage, perseverance, and the importance of family in times of hardship and uncertainty.

Though I remember reading Esperanza Rising in school as a child, I remembered nothing about the plot before choosing to re-read it as an adult. After experiencing it for a second time, however, I realize this is simply because the book was not memorable enough for me  to really have any recollection of it. While it was a nice read, it holds none of the weight that books like Bridge to Terabithia and The Giver do, books I read for class that I will never forget. Part of this might be due to the main character (I found her intolerable for the first half of the book), but I also think it’s because it lacks the overwhelming depth and historical detail of some of the other historical fiction I’ve read.

While it might be unfair to criticize Esperanza (she is, after all, a product of her privileged upbringing), she says and does some incredibly rude things at the beginning of the book that make it heard to root for her later on. For example, even though she and her mother are penniless and in the same circumstances as many other peasants, Esperanza turns her nose up at them on the train, going as far as pulling away from a little girl and refusing to let her “dirty hands” touch her doll. She changes completely by the end of the book, of course, but it was hard to like her at first. In Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains, I immediately rooted for Isabel, as she was an instantly likable character. Esperanza’s arrogance at the beginning of this novel might have been purposeful (she eventually learns her lesson and begins to understand that nobody should be placed above anyone else), but I still didn’t appreciate her attitude towards those she deemed to be “lesser” than her. It makes it all the more ironic later on in the novel, as she’s complaining about how others look down on her because of her race. While this obviously isn’t right, it would’ve been nice to see Esperanza reflect for a moment on how she once treated others exactly the same way she hated being treated later on. To me, this would have made that message come across even more clearly, and provided a powerful moment of self-realization that the novel seemed to lack.

I also wish there had been more detail regarding the labor camps and strikes. While Chains gives us a heavily researched, in-depth look at America during the Revolutionary War, Esperanza Rising feels more like fiction than something that might have actually happened. As I mentioned above, this story reads a lot more like a reverse Cinderella story (riches to rags) than it does historical fiction. While we get an idea of the injustices facing laborers and strikers during this time period (we learn that they were forcefully deported even though many of them were U.S. citizens, which was entirely unjust and wrong), these plot threads sometimes take a backseat to Esperanza’s personal story. While I understand that this story is ultimately about her, not the events taking place around her, it would’ve been nice to see more of the “history” behind this novel’s historical fiction categorization.

Despite my nitpicks, however, I did enjoy the theme of family in this book, and thought it was touching to see Esperanza make a personal change in order to help her mother. I might not have liked her much at first, but she grew to be an incredibly strong, level-headed character, one I was able to forgive for her arrogance at the beginning of the novel. I was also impressed with the way Ryan is able to write incredibly three-dimensional characters, characters I wasn’t sure how to feel about at times. For example, Marta starts off as a stereotypical jerk, but we later grow to feel sympathy towards her when we realize that she’s also just trying her best to provide for her family. Like Esperanza, she grew on me throughout the novel, and I found it hard to hate her despite her abrasiveness.

In fact, I felt conflicted about the strikers in general throughout the story, which tells me that this plot thread was done incredibly well. Part of me understood why they were doing what they were doing (after all, America was built on the idea of protesting peacefully against things you fee to be unfair or problematic), but I found myself worrying about Esperanza and her friends. I kept saying to myself, “Why would they sabotage their fellow immigrants? They all want the same thing.” It then dawned on me that this is one of many examples of how two groups can want the same thing, but disagree about how best to achieve that goal. The strikers felt it in their rights to demand better living conditions and pay, and I found myself agreeing with them from time to time (especially after learning about the new Oklahoma camp near the end of the novel). As can be seen when Esperanza helps Marta hide from the U.S. officials, the immigrants were more than happy to come together and help each other out when it counted, likely making them much stronger in the long run.

While this book wasn’t one of my favorites, I’m glad I gave it another shot as an adult. I appreciated seeing a small glimpse of a lesser known part of American history (I had no idea immigrant labor camps existed, but it makes complete sense now that I think about it), and I really was invested in Esperanza’s story. I would have liked to see more of the history, but I respect that this novel was meant to focus on the story of a fictionalized young girl instead of the history. If I was judging solely on the story itself, I’d give this book five stars. Because it is labeled as historical fiction, however, I had to bump it down a bit, as I’ve read much more engaging historical fiction in the last year alone.

If you love historical fiction, The Book Thief and Chains would probably be better choices, but Esperanza Rising is still well worth a shot if you have the time. I wish I’d enjoyed it more than I did, but I suppose it’s impossible for us to love every single book that we read. This book, for me, simply fell a little short. The things it does well (such as the elements of family and gray moral areas) are done incredibly well, but the lack of historical detail made it fall flat. If you’re still curious, however, definitely give this book a shot; these are only my opinions, after all, and you might find yourself enjoying it much more than I did. It’s still an entertaining and easy read, and one that reminds us of the importance of family in times of crisis. Though simple, I think that’s an incredibly important and powerful lesson, and one that can help us through even our darkest struggles.

Reference:

Ryan, P. M. (2000). Esperanza rising. New York: Scholastic Press.

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