7.19.2008

Reading Life 32

Alamo Wars by Ray Villarreal

There is a danger that a many readers who start Villarreal's second novel for young adults (his first being My Father, The Angel of Death) will choose not to finish it. Here's why: for a good while, the characters are presented in a very stereotypical and flat way. The white kids, including the book's bully Billy Ray Cansler, are very one-dimensional. They play the part of ignorant racists. As do the Anglo teachers. The Mexican American and Mexican kids are bullied, are victimized by an uncaring white public school system. It would be a shame, though, if those readers did put the book down for these reasons. Though they are there, the book changes routes a few chapters after midway. Villarreal makes of most typed characters more fleshy ones. So don't despair, those of you (myself included in this bunch) who might think this book is one that bashes white folks outright. It turns into a book about admitting a misunderstanding of those very differences that traditionally keep us separate (culturally and racially speaking) and a sincere moving toward the beginning of acceptance of one another for who we are, period.

Anyhow, the story is this: Miss Mac, an icon at Rosemont Middle School in San Antonio, dies in the classroom. Several generations of students whose lives she touched are greatly saddened. In cleaning out her filing cabinets, Team 3 teacher and a long time friend, Mrs. Frymire finds a play that Miss Mac had written a long time back. To honor her friend, Mrs. Frymire talks folks into putting on the play, titled "Thirteen Days to Glory--The Battle of the Alamo." It's a great idea, except that according to some of the Mexican American students playing the parts of Mexicans One, Two, and Three, and according to Miss Mac's replacement, Miss Martinez, the play is a very one-sided look at the history of the battle, and the dialogue is more Speedy Gonzalez than accurate. People take sides: Marco, Raquel, Izzy, and Miss Martinez (and a few others) stand on the one side; Mrs. Frymire, Billy Ray, and others stand opposed. Production shuts down. Racial tension grows.

But Villarreal is not about spitting venom. He is, instead, about himself and his characters trying to find out for themselves who they are and where they stand on serious issues. And it is at this point in the story that the characters really and truly come alive, and they remain so to the end. It's a good book. Don't put it aside like I did time and again. Plug away at it, and you'll see for yourself, it is a good book.

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