________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 6. . . .November 7, 2008


My Ocean.

Enrique Pérez Díaz. Translated by Trudy Balch.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood/House of Anansi, 2008.
173 pp., pbk. & hc., $11.00 (pbk.), $18.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-0-88899-859-0 (pbk.), ISBN 978-0-88899-797-5 (hc.).

Grades 4-7 / Ages 9-12.

Review by Michelle Superle.

** /4

Reviewed from Advance Reader Copy.



A lot of the time when I look at the ocean, I feel like I'm a boy living alone on an island.

Right now I'm very depressed. More depressed than ever before. Even more than when Abuela and Abuelo left. Because it's happened again. I've lost one of my best friends. And a lot of it is this hateful ocean's fault. That's right, the ocean's at fault. That's why I'm so mad.

One night Luisitos' parents took him away over the ocean to El Norte, and now I don't know what's happened to him. Everyone knows that kids don't usually make the decisions. The grownups always do it for us.

That's why I like to read so much. In books there are children like Pippi Longstocking who decide for themselves what's going to happen and what they're going to do.


My Ocean, by Enrique Pérez Díaz, is the story of a boy trying to make sense of Cuban/American political relations as he grows up in Cuba and experiences their tangible results affecting every aspect of his life and family. In a narrative best suited to 9 to 12-year-olds, "Kiki" describes his life to "his" ocean, ostensibly writing letters to float away in bottles. By turns adoring and accusing, pleading and praising, Kiki addresses this inanimate body and brings to life his own emotionally fortifying relationship with the ocean, as well as its fraught role in enabling Cubans to escape to "El Norte," the United States to Cuba's north.

     This sophisticated framing technique and impressive attempt to grapple with a political situation that becomes extraordinarily complicated when it intersects with the daily lives of average people, such as Kiki and his family, ultimately falls short with a lackluster narrative. Diaz points out in his Author's Note that the events in My Ocean "attempt to give an overview of life in Cuba throughout the past fifty years." Perhaps the scope here is too ambitious; whatever the reason, the narrative is episodic rather than focused around a clear plot. Urgent issues such as whether Kiki and his mother should—philosophically and morally— join his grandparents in El Norte, and whether they can—legally, financially, and physically—do so become dulled in a plethora of daily trivia. While there is a clear attempt on Diaz's part to provide a well-rounded portrayal of real life as experienced by the average Cuban, ultimately his choice of narrative strategy is unsuccessful. Diary and epistolary formats are notoriously difficult to control, not least because of the challenges they present in conveying active scenes. This is precisely the failing point of My Ocean: Kiki's disjointed, scattered musings on his life are primarily conveyed in dull flashbacks and lack the strength to carry forward his story as a more traditional, climax-driven structure would have. In short, despite the compelling aspects of his situation, the way Kiki's story is told ultimately prevents the growth of readers' empathy.

      Indeed, even when Kiki does attempt to reach El Norte, the episode falls flat and character motivation is troublingly inconsistent. Throughout the story, Kiki has been deeply concerned by and engaged with family relationships, and he agonizes over the implications of a potential move to El Norte. He sorely misses his grandparents, who have emigrated to the United States, as well as his father, who has abandoned him and his mother. He makes a binding pact with his mother that they will remain a team forever. And yet, in a plot twist in Chapter 32 unprecedented by any critical reason to leave Cuba, Kiki cavalierly decides to go along with some friends (not even his best friends) to try to reach El Norte by inner tube at night, which he knows is the most dangerous, often fatal, method of emigration. Even Kiki, himself, seems aware of how bizarre his decision is, admitting to his ocean that "I don't know what this strange feeling is that makes me keep quiet and not argue with their crazy idea. Something scares me, but there's a deep, dark wish making me go along." It is frustrating that such an important story as this one, which details the real and overwhelming challenges of a Cuban child and his family, is not better told. While such a well-told story would deserve a place in every classroom in North America, I'm not convinced that My Ocean does.

Recommended with reservations.

Michelle Superle teaches Children's Literature, Composition, and Creative Writing at the University of the Fraser Valley.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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