Rhiannon's Reviews > Illegal

Illegal by Bettina Restrepo
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Apr 13, 11

bookshelves: lady-writer, read-in-2011, owned, ya-realistic-times, come-on-over, firstreads
Recommended for: Middle-Schoolers (8th Grade)
Read from March 31 to April 13, 2011 — I own a copy

Overall, I liked this book. I liked that the book was a quick, interesting read - with short chapters, easily accessible language (the author even includes a glossary of Spanish terms), and a compelling storyline. Even while the book included some harrowing scenes, it was optimistic overall. I really thought that the ending was a beautifully-wrapped-up full circle concerning one of the book's themes (Quinceanera), and that the author did an excellent job bringing her story to such an end.

The author also does an excellent job of navigating a difficult topic (Mexico/US Immigration) with a true mind to shed light on the (horrifying) conditions for the working poor. In my opinion, she did this without fishing for pity or overly politicizing her message! She gives voice to a largely ignored class/group within our society, and observes parts of US urban culture with a new set of eyes - letting the reader peek in to the ways that these oppressed and mainly poor people operate among one another, read about the optimism and the sense of community they build, and see the way they help one another. It honestly had the potential to be really beautiful.

But - at some points, I have to say that I drew back from the story, and found myself analyzing...

Keisha, Jorge, Flora - these are the characters that Nora meets when she gets to the US. I really enjoyed these characters, and felt them nicely fleshed out. I wish I could say the same about Nora (the main character) and Mama (her mother), however. Those two characters, whom we meet early in the book and follow from poverty-stricken Mexico to poverty-stricken Houston, should (as the main characters) be even more intricate than the minor characters mentioned above, and yet - at points in the story, I felt disconnected from both of them.

One of the reasons I may have felt a disconnect from Nora was the notion that I couldn't quite get a feel for her age in terms of her lack of/wealth of experience...when I felt like I should be getting to know more about her (her, as in the type of person she was, her identity), she sometimes came off younger and more naive than I would expect at some points, and older than her fifteen years at others. This is okay, at times - since teenagers often walk that line between innocence and experience - but, other times, I found myself frustrated with her lack of identity. I wondered who would Nora speak for as a character, and what kind of reader Nora would speak to. For me, it is not a question of whether she has anything substantial to say (she does!), just who would find her most relatable and engaging in terms of age group, experience, etc.

Mama, on the other hand - was largely a blank character, often absent. If Nora could have made it to Houston without her, somehow, I think the author almost would have preferred it - because Mama had almost no voice, no character, no...anything. Blank, weak, voiceless, helpless. I found myself perplexed by this choice.

Thankfully, characters like Flora, Keisha, the extended "restaurant-family" and Mr. Mann anchor the book in realism. Moreover, Restrepo's commitment to the neighborhoods of Houston (which I got to explore on her website...Check This Out, It's Totally Worth It!) also give this book its sense of realism.

Finally, let me mention that I received this book from a Goodreads Author after winning a Goodreads Giveaway - and I could not have been more excited about it!
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