Review of the Day: Prizefighter En Mi Casa
Little girl befriends large hulking male giant. It's the kind of image that sticks in your brain, isn't it? From the little girl in Frankenstein offering him a flower to King Kong and Fay Ray, the idea of a beauty taming a beast regardless of age sets off something in our reptilian brains. Maybe it's the contrast of the characterss or the juxtaposition of hulk and human, but people gravitate to this kind of story. And yet, for all of that, "Prizefighter En Mi Casa", stands out. This isn't just a tale of a girl and her BFG. This is a story where the child in question wants to learn strength from her gigantic friend. Though we've seen this kind of story told a million times before, we've never seen it done so convincingly. It's a book that teaches power to the powerless. Give it up for the meek.
Things were bad for Chula's family, but she never expected they'd become THIS bad. I mean, sure her dad's in a wheelchair and it was his drunk driving that gave Chula the epilepsy that's marked her at school as a freak. And sure her brother's running with a gang and her mother's growing colder and more distant by the day. But did they have to invite a monster into their home? His name is El Jefe, "The Boss" and he's not the Devil. He's the Boss of the Devil. A unbeatable prizefighter in Mexico, El Jefe has done Chula's father a favor and has come to southern Texas to take on a fight that could mean a lot of prize money. Once Chula gets past her initial fear of her enormous housemate, she finds she can confess to him the fears and thoughts she'd never dare speak out loud amongst her family members. Chula wants to be strong, but she doesn't know how to go about it. She seems trapped in a circle of poverty and suspects that by not taking her epilepsy pills she might grow stronger. But when she begins to learn more about El Jefe's past and the extent to which her brother is involved with the Dark Skins, Chula may have to redefine what is right, what is wrong, and what is human.
Sometimes when I'm reviewing book I'll do some brief coo about the language and then quote a particular sentence I might have found moving or unforgettable. The problem with "Prizefighter En Mi Casa" is that if I went about quoting all the lines I liked I'd have to write paragraph after paragraph of significant verses before getting to any silly details like "plot" or "characters". So I'll make you a compromise. Here are a mere four lines of writing from the book that struck me as examples of primo writing. Make of them what you will:
"El Jefe's shadow clawed the hall wall before his way big body."
"Sprinkles scattered like lost children hoping to find their mothers soon."
"Not to mention, nobody went down to the Playground after dark anymore unless they were dark enough in the heart not to be seen."
"He placed his thick scaly hand on my cheek and smiled like people do when they think they have to and their face don't wanna."
Did you see that? Did you see how Charlton-Trujillo can rip apart a situation with the light touch of a single sentence? What we are dealing with here is an author that puts her characters into terrible danger and great moral peril and then redeems them with a well-placed thought or description. Under a heavier hand this might leave a reader feeling tired or weighed down by a narrative they can't hope to understand. With this author, however, you read on and on in the hope that maybe at some point the characters will realize how self-destructive their behavior really is. And I can tell you this, my friend . . . Chula? Her insight keeps the book from ever bogging down in its own depression. After all, "Prizefighter En Mi Casa" is many things, but light-hearted romp it is not.
The book felt real too. It felt familiar. For kids growing up in areas that are not in states bordering Mexico, the racism in this book may strike them as overblown. They may think, "I know Hispanic kids in my school. It's not like that!", which would be nice if it were true. Writing about racism in a contemporary novel is way more difficult than setting your book in the past, by the way. It has to acknowledge that the world today is not a beautiful everybody-loves-everybody type of place. And the author deftly shows how this racial situation has warped Chula's family. The question of how to escape the life she was born into is always there. And the answer, for the record, is just as complicated as the question.
I liked that you began the story entirely from Chula's point of view about her older sibling. He's a jerky brother not too unlike a lot of jerky brothers out there. Then, as the reader gets more and more engrossed in the story, you discover the source of some of Richie's rage. His father used to be (and may still be) a drinker who'd sometimes embarrass his offspring. "I think it was funny most of the time really, and told Richie he was being too sensitive-like and he'd just make for the door or disappear in his room till we almost forget he'd even come home." When the book begins you're vaguely aware that a horrible thing occurred sometime in the past and it's created a hole in the family structure. Then, with a meticulousness Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller would been proud of, the true tale comes to light, tying together the past and the present.
There were some odd moments where Charlton-Trujillo would try to connect the story to contemporary figures like Justin Timberlake and the like. This probably wasn't necessary and it'll date an otherwise timeless book in ten years or less. Still, the title is a strong effort and a story worth reading. It's not a book that I, as a child, would have loved. I was far more into fancy fantasy than gritty realism when I was young. For some kids, however, Chula's story will suck them in and not loosen its grip until they crossed the 210th page. It's hard and it's fast and it's amazing. I wouldn't call it pleasant, but I would call it a necessary read. Powerful.
Notes On the Cover: Y’all know my dislike of unwarranted sepia. Sepia-slaughter, as it were. Well, there are exceptions to every rule and this is one of them. I am fond of this cover. I like the dirt road, the approximate age of the girl, and the fact that she and El Jefe seem to be walking towards a sun that is either rising or setting. My sole objection? El Jefe is described as enormous in this book. Larger than life and magnificently huge. The guy on this cover? He look like he’s five foot eleven and works as an organic farmer. Maybe this is supposed to be how Chula ends up seeing El Jefe, I dunno. Whatever the case, he’s not the fellow I envisioned. Still, it’s a gorgeous bit of work, so hats off to one Mr. Matt Mahurin.