and now Miguel
The title of this book is familiar to me - although I don't know why. So I was excited to read it.
Initially the book feels like it needs a family tree but after a while you get to feel like one of the Chavez family and know who everyone is. Blas and his wife are parents to:
Young Blas - a school bus driver
Gabriel - 19
Pedro - 7, always content
Blas' brothers Bonifacio and Eli are also part of the family as well as the father of the three brothers (grandfather to Miguel). Together they all help at the family sheep ranch with 1800 sheep. Miguel narrates and explains it like this:
For that is the work of our family, to raise sheep. In our country, wherever you find a man from the Chavez family, with him will be a flock of sheep. It has been this way for many years, even hundreds, my grandfather told me. Long before the Americans came to New Mexico, long before there was any such thing here called the United states, there was a Chavez family in this place with sheep. It was even so in Spain where our family began. It is even so today. (p. 5)
Early on (pg. 8) there is some mild violence when Gabriel and Miguel spot a coyote. Miguel explains how the animal attacks the flock and Gabriel shoots it. "It was good to kill a coyote with two bullets, many lambs were saved. Gabriel laughed because it was good and because it was so easy." (p. 9) At the end there are a few references to guns and ammunition when they are packing for the trip into the mountains. But that's the most violent the book gets. It's mainly about how Miguel can get his wish.
That's the way it was with Gabriel. Everything that he wants he can get. With Pedro it is the opposite. Everything that he has is enough.
Both of them, they are happy.
But to be in between, not so little anymore and not yet nineteen years, to be me, Miguel, and to have a great wish - that is hard. (p. 9)
Miguel wanted to be a part of the annual expedition into the Sangre de Cristo mountains but is always viewed as not old enough. Every year he packs a bundle just in case they ask him to go at the last minute - but they never do.
There are many religious references from the simple (if you behave and say your prayers you'll go to Heaven) to references to Saints. The Chavez family is cleearly Catholic. The family is very down to earth. Everyone is expected to help as their age allows and nobody's contribution is seen as any more special than anyone else's. Grandpa has very conservative views, explaining to Eli and Miguel, "Whenever something grows and you keep it from growing anymore, that's a sin. And if it's a life, living and you let it to die, that's a sin." (p. 57) Sadly after this beautiful teaching moment Eli poo-poohs his father and grandpa tells Miguel how smart Eli is. In the second half of the book there is a lot of talk about San Ysidro, the patron saint of Los Cordovas, where the Chavez family lives, as well as of farmers. The town celebrates the festival of San Ysidro and both Gabriel and Miguel make a wish to him. At times the requests to San Ysidro are labeled as wishes and at other times prayers. I would like to put to ease the concerns of any non-Catholics who might not fully understand the concept of praying to a saint. I myself did not understand the concept when I was Methodist. Having converted to Catholicism in 2005 I can see both sides. In fact, Catholics don't actually pray to a saint as one prays to God. Catholics request a saint to intercede for them but don't expect the saint to make it happen - only God has that power. But the saint can "arrange things" (as Miguel says) as an intermediary between us and God. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ, even those who have gone before us. Requesting intercession from a saint is like asking a friend to pray for you.
For the most part the siblings get along. Miguel does tell Pedro and Faustina to shut up one time (p. 32). Another time Miguel and Gabriel have an argument but they each realize the wrong and make up. For a while Miguel lies to his younger two siblings about having a plan to get to go up the mountain. Several times he feels bad about it and even contemplates what he is gaining by lying (nothing) but still keeps it up.
At the beginning of Chapter 4 Miguel describes the birthing of lambs. It is not bloody or gory or graphic or even overly medical but more the observations of a young adolescent and takes about four pages. In fact, the reader learns a lot about lambs while reading this book. And also a lot fo Spanish words that are peppered into the narrative and understandable due to context. Another uncomfortable passage occurs with the explanation of using dead lamb skin on an orphaned lamb to match it up with a ewe who's lost a child. necessary and beneficial - but still a little disgusting towards the end of Chapter 5. And briefly in the middle of Chapter 11 with a reference to lambs having "their tails docked" (p. 173).
There are quite a few moments of humor such as when Miguel is explaining how ewes and new lambs are paint-branded with the same number. "This way you can make any number you like. ...even seventeen million five hundred and sixty thousand if you wanted to, I guess, and you had a sheep long enough." (p. 46)
In contemplating how he can be allowed to go up the mountain Miguel determines he will need to demonstrate his usefulness. One night some of the sheep run away during a storm. The next morning Miguel hears the elders discussing the retrieval and offers to help but Dad insists he must go to school. At school Miguel's friend Juby tells him he saw some sheep in a particular area. Miguel makes a quick decision to leave school and go after the sheep. The sheep were not in the first place he looked so he continues looking over a large area of land. Miguel says, "I didn't mind too much. The kind of thing I was doing had to be hard. Such a big thing couldn't be too easy. It'd be like cheating." (p. 83) After a lot of searching when he still couldn't find them, he got angry but then reasoned, "I had no reason to be mad at the sheep, it wasn't as if they started out to get me in trouble. Indeed, because of them, here I was doing a great thing." (p. 92) but when he did bring the sheep home it wasn't as great as he imagined because before his father realized the sheep were back he scolded Miguel for not going to school. In the end his father said, "...I am glad to have the sheep back. How you did it was wrong. But for what you did, I want to thank you." (p. 100)
While Miguel does have many moments of growth and personal insight - it's not all maturity. Once, when disappointed, he takes it out by kicking an orphaned sheep he is supposed to be caring for. One paragraph later he regrets his action and comforts the sheep. So while its good that Miguel recognizes his fault and takes corrective action the initial act of cruelty could be upsetting to some more sensitive children.
When the shearers come to the Chavez farm, there is a reference to card playing for money. It is one long sentence that covers three lines of text and could easily be missed by those still contemplating the idea of earning 35 cents per sheared sheep of the preceding sentence. but I mention it because I know for some, including my late Brazilian host-father, card playing is an absolute no-no. So in his honor I note the potential concern. Also, on page 210 the word "jackass" appears when Gabriel comments on his behavior during a disagreement with Miguel. Having the shearers there is one of the best parts of the book because it is when Miguel makes the biggest transition into being a part of the older group. He puts in a good days work and is even invited to eat with the crew. But the next day he makes a silly mistake and is greatly embarrassed. again he struggles with properly directing his anger, but is much more successful with it this time.
And speaking of success, if Miguel is to be successful in getting up the mountain, it must come at a price. That was something he did not consider when he first pled to San Ysidro. Then he thinks that he can undo his wish and tries but, with Gabriel's help, comes to accept things as they worked out. Gabriel explains, "I just kept wishing to go, that's all. I never said how, or in what way. So I'm going. If I don't like the way I'm going, that's my fault." (p 197) Miguel things maybe he should have put conditions on his request but Gabriel replies that there'd be no end to the conditions. The brothers also have a discussion about, "A universal, natural law. You only get when you give." (p. 201) They liken it to the earth's law of gravity. They reason that since the things they wished for are carried out on earth then they must give up something to get their wish. They also, remarkably, give pause to consider how inundated the saints must be with requests from people all over the earth.
Finally, when Miguel arrives at the mountain we arrive at the most precious lamb in the whole book. Miguel's whole fascination with where the mountain begins. The wonder of a child is truly wonderful! Miguel likens the beginning of the mountain to that precise moment at exactly midnite when the New Year begins.
It's a strong family book and a nice coming of age story. And now...the next book.