Susanna's Reviews > Between Light and Shadow: A Guatemalan Girl's Journey through Adoption

Between Light and Shadow by Jacob R. Wheeler
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's review
May 30, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: adoption

This is a good introduction to adoption from Guatemala and the necessary historical context. The author strives (and succeeds, for the most part) to remain neutral about his subject. The story of the girl's biological family and her relinquishment is heartbreaking, and the later clash of cultures speaks volumes about the gulf between the rich and the poor. However, I think that the book's title is somewhat misleading. Although the story centers around Ellie's/Berenice's adoption, the primary focus is on the women who have raised her. And, although the story of Antonia, the birth mother, is presented compassionately, in the end this is the adoptive mother's story. She is the one who decides to search for Ellie's birth family, she who makes first contact, and it is through her interaction with the author that we get the most detailed insights. Many of these insights are naive and even imperialist, as the author points out.

The problem for me is that we hear very little of Ellie's/Berenice's own voice. We can only infer what she is feeling, through her evasive, teenage stock phrases, and finally, through her rash adolescent decision that is at the climax of the book. The girl is a minor, therefore protected and, effectively, silenced by that fact. This is not the fault of the author, but it is a common problem with discussions of the effects of adoption. Almost always the adoptees who are consulted about their adjustment and contentment in their adoptive families are minors, still living in their parents' households, still growing into their identities. The author cites Betty Jean Lifton on the feelings of obligation that often cloud adopted children's feelings about their families, and this feeling can be so ingrained that it comes out as fierce attachment and denial of difference. When a child knows s/he is adopted, and was, therefore abandoned or relinquished or orphaned, that child often feels vulnerable and, therefore, obligated to demonstrate gratitude through loyalty to one's adoptive family. But when adoptees grow into adults and into their identities as individuals apart from their (adoptive) families, they may have to deal with feelings of anger towards the people and the system that changed their lives forever. This is when we can get a more mature and nuanced view of the effects of adoption on adoptees. And these adult adoptees are the people who need to have their stories told, both to set the record straight and to help other, younger adoptees deal with their often complicated feelings. (See, for instance, the PBS film Discovering Dominga, about a grown Guatemalan adoptee and her search for her roots). I wonder if the Guatemalan adoptees who were caught up in the flurry of adoptions in the mid-2000s will one day organize to demand answers and justice for themselves and their families, like many Korean adoptees are doing today.

Wheeler's book is enlightening about the forces at play in the Guatemalan adoption world and the conflicting feelings of the adults involved. But I think that this girl's story--and that of her brothers who were left behind to deal with their sister's disappearance--is yet to be told.
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