As it turns out, I've had Matt de la Pena's book We Were Here on my To Be Read shelf for far too long. I think that I knew that it was going to be an amazing book with all sorts of tragic characters and gritty truths about life. I think that this is why I put it off. I didn't want to be heartbroken, to care about a main character that I could not save or help.
As it turns out, I was right and wrong. I was right that I would care about the main characters and that this book would be filled with all sorts of crazy truth. But, they did not need my help. Each of the three main characters figured out his path in his own way.
The central character, Miguel, is placed in a group home for teen boys who have done something criminally wrong. We don't know exactly what Miguel has done, but I think that we know the entire time that he is not a criminal. Whatever he did, he did not mean to cause harm.
Miguel does not fit in at the group home. He purposefully distances himself from the other boys, and spends much of his time reading great literary classics. It is interesting that each of the classics he reads seem to be incorporated in this novel. Here are the books that reads and the way that I see them fitting into the plot/ structure/ characters of the novel:
The Color Purple by Alice Walker: This classic (which I've seen on Broadway and hold close to my literary heart) is told in a series of journal entries, which is also the style in which We Were Here is narrated. Because of the structure, the book is only as revealing and honest as the main character (writer of the journal) is with herself. Very true of We Were Here.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston: I didn't much see the connection between these two texts until later in the book. There's a bit of a road trip, an escape, and a quest for love or meaning. I think that this a parallel between the two books. Also, I think that the character Mong might have been Miguel's Teacake, in a way. This probably will make no sense to anyone but me.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger: Not told in journal format, but might as well have been. Catcher is a crazy whirlwind of a novel, as is We Were Here. There's also that underlying insanity and reflective quality of Catcher that shows up in We Were Here. I think that Holden Caulfield and Miguel would have a lot in common if they were to meet. Neither characters are "phonies" by any stretch of the imagination!
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck: This is probably the most heartbreaking connection for me. To me, Miguel is George and the third central character, Rondell, is like Lennie. The ending does not turn out the same way in We Were Here, but the patience and frustration that Miguel feels toward Rondell totally reminds me of how George feels and treats Lennie.
This was a great read. I plan to read other books by this author, but I think that I need some time to digest this one first. This is definitely a modern classic. It's well-written and heartbreaking and real all at once. Sigh.