CM . . .
. Volume XIV Number 3 . . . .September 28, 2007
Sacred Leaf. (The Cocalero Novels).
Toronto, ON: Groundwood/House of Anansi Press, 2007.
207 pp., pbk. & cl., $9.95 (pbk.), $18.95 (cl.).
ISBN 978-0-88899-808-8 (pbk.), ISBN 978-0-88899-751-7 (cl.).
Coca industry-Bolivia-Juvenile fiction.
Grades 5-8 / Ages 10-13.
Review by David Jenkinson.
Reviewed from Advance Reader Copy.
The bulldozer easily pushed through the barricades Diego and the others had worked so hard to build. As the army advanced, the cocaleros retreated to the middle of the bridge. More tear gas came flying in. A canister landed near Diego. He picked it up and threw it back, then felt a terrible pain in his chest. The blow knocked him to the ground.
He heard rifle shots and saw others fall near him.
Was he shot? His chest hurt so much.
"Everyone lie down," Vargas called out. Diego looked up to see the television camera in his face. All around him people lay down on the bridge until the army could not move one more step without running over somebody.
Diego felt himself being lifted and carried off the bridge by a soldier in a gas mask.
It was over. The blockade was over.
According to the book's glossary, a Cocalero is a coca farmer while Ellis's "Author's Note" explains: "Coca is a sacred plant to the indigenous people of Bolivia – one of the poorest countries in the Western hemisphere." The glossary goes on to say that the "leaves [of the coca shrub] have been used by the indigenous people of the Andes for centuries for food, medicine and religious rituals." Unfortunately, in addition to these benign traditional uses, those same leaves can be processed into a paste which, when further refined, then becomes the illegal but lucrative drug cocaine.
Sacred Leaf, which picks up Diego Juárez's story about a week after the conclusion of I Am A Taxi, sees the 12-year-old, having escaped the coca paste dealers, now temporarily staying with a cocalero family, the Ricardos. Bonita, also 12 and the eldest of the family's three children, takes an instant dislike to Diego, describing him as "a boy bringing trouble." For Diego's help during the family's harvesting of their coca crop (which is to be sold in the local non-drug market), Mr. Ricardo promises him some money from the crop's sale to assist Diego in returning "home" to his incarcerated parents. However, before the crop can be sold, the Ricardos' small farm is raided by the army, and the harvested leaves are confiscated and the family's coca shrubs, their sole source of income, destroyed. For supposedly attempting to assault the soldiers, Diego is "arrested" and taken to the army's camp. Diego's detainment, coupled with the fact that all of the local cocaleros have had their crops seized and plants destroyed, cause the cocaleros to blockade a major north-south highway, with their demands to end the blockade being twofold: the release of Diego and the return of their confiscated crops. While the captain in charge of the local army unit immediately grants their first request, Diego's release, he cannot accede to the cocaleros' second demand and warns them that the situation can only get worse if the cocaleros do not abandon their blockade.
The events surrounding the blockade, which Diego comes to learn through his involvement is just part of a larger nation-wide struggle by the cocaleros for fairer treatment by their government, become the book's central focus. Consistent with Bolivian history, the blockade ultimately fails, being crushed by the central government's military might, but middle school readers possessing a developing social conscience will recognize that Ellis is really telling a story that has a much greater significance beyond just this one isolated happening.
The book's ending is most disappointing, and not because the "little guy" doesn't win, but principally because it is so abrupt. Suddenly, Diego is back in Cochabamba, courtesy of the aforementioned captain who has taken a liking to the spunky lad. Not only did the captain provide transportation for Diego, but he's now attempting to secure Diego's parents' release from prison. And Diego, partly to avenge Mando's death, an event that occurred in I Am a Taxi, has become a police "informant" charged with identifying those who would lure other young boys, as he and Mando were lured, into working in the jungle coca pits. Surprisingly, given all that has happened to Diego and that he's now back in Cochabamba, his parents and younger sister are virtually invisible in the book's closing pages. Whereas the open ending of I Am a Taxi demanded a sequel, it is not clear whether or not Sacred Leaf marks the end of "The Cocalero Novels."
While Ellis opens Sacred Leaf with a two page "the Story So Far" section, readers will have a much richer experience if they have first encountered I Am a Taxi. As previously noted, Ellis provides both a concluding two-page "Author's Note" which situates the plot in recent Bolivian history, particularly that related to the drug trade, and a two-page "Glossary."
Now a Senior Scholar in the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba, Dave Jenkinson is CM's editor.
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