Rgz SALON member Lyn Miller-Lachmann is the Editor-in-Chief of MultiCultural Review; the author of the award-winning multicultural bibliography Our Family, Our Friends, Our World; the editor of Once Upon a Cuento, a collection of short stories by Latino authors; and most recently, the author of Gringolandia, a young adult novel about a refugee family living with the aftermath of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. (Read the fascinating Cover Story for Gringolandia.)
We're honored to have her here as part of the rgz SALON, a feature where four of the top kidlit experts clue us in to the best YA novels they've read recently. Today, Lyn reviews The Dreamer by Pam Muñoz Ryan (Scholastic, 2010).
"In 2004, I published in MultiCultural Review a biographical essay by Chilean-American poet and memoirist Marjorie Agosín to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Pablo Neruda. For Agosín and countless other Chilean poets and dreamers, Neruda is their inspiration and hero, an essential part of their culture and themselves.
"Knowing how much Neruda means to my Chilean friends, I approached The Dreamer with some trepidation. Would this fictionalized biography distort the poet’s life and words, or lose them in translation? Would the author and illustrator be able to capture essential truths while giving leeway to their own imaginations?
"Right away, I noted the sense of continuity from Neruda’s words to those of Agosín and now Ryan, like Sís’s drawings of birds that grow larger and stronger, carrying Neruda’s poetry to ever more distant lands. Readers meet young Neftalí Reyes at age eight, a physically delicate child who lives in fear of his overbearing father. José Reyes, the railway foreman, wants his son to be a doctor or a dentist, but in addition to his nonstop daydreaming and playing with words, Neftalí struggles with math.
"The portrait of Neftalí’s father is nuanced—he’s a self-made man who wants his children to have a better life than he had, and he fears his younger son and middle child will succumb to illness as his mother did (she died shortly after his birth). The poet’s older brother Rodolfo, younger sister Laurita, and stepmother Mamadre are also lovingly portrayed. Rodolfo tries to protect his younger brother from his father’s wrath, and Neftalí in turns feels a sense of responsibility toward Laurita when their father forces them to swim in the ocean.
"Ryan touches also on the political concerns that would become an important part of Neruda’s life and work, through his Uncle Orlando, the newspaper editor, and his own meeting with a Mapuche boy his age—part of an indigenous nation that resisted conquest for hundreds of years but was ultimately driven from ancestral lands in central and southern Chile. (Battles to reclaim those lands continue today.) Throughout the novel, names, usually only mentioned, convey the country’s indigenous roots—the rivers Bío-Bío and Cautín, the towns Ranquilco, Lonquen, and Carahue, and the chucao bird and copihue flower.
"Through vignettes real, embellished, and imagined—for Ryan ventures several times into the realm of pure fantasy—readers observe the 12-year process in which Neftalí, with the support of his siblings, Mamadre, Uncle Orlando, and other caring adults (though left out is Chile’s other Nobel Laureate, Gabriela Mistral, whose brief relationship to the future poet is portrayed in Deborah Kogan Roy’s To Go Singing Through the World) is able to come into himself. He adopts the pen name Pablo Neruda, which circumvents his father’s fear that his literary and political pursuits will embarrass the family.
"Sís’s illustration and the book’s overall design are exquisite. My only concern—and I’m sorry to say it’s one that should be taken seriously—is a factual error in the Author’s Note. The note states, 'Only a few months before Neruda died, Pinochet’s armed guards were ordered to search and ransack his house, as he was by then proclaimed a traitor.' The military coup that toppled the democratically elected socialist government of Dr. Salvador Allende, Neruda’s ally, took place on September 11, 1973. Neruda died on September 23, 1973, his home raided several days before he died. Take a dark green pen (as Neruda himself wrote in green, the color of hope, and the book is also printed in that color) and as neatly as possible change 'months' to 'days.' For the sake of those from whose soil Neruda rose, and those who suffered and died for the causes they shared, these dates are important and must not be forgotten or changed. Then add the book to your collection; it is one that dreamers young and old will treasure."