Star in the Forest, by Laura Resau (Random House, 2010, middle grade, 140 pages)
"There is a forest behind my trailer, through the weeds and under the gate and across the trickly, oily ditch. It is a forest of very, very old car parts, heaps of rusted metal, spotted orangey brown, with rainbow layers of fading paint, and leaves and vines poking and twisting through the holes. Birds and snakes and bugs sometimes peek out from the pipes and hubcaps." (page 3)
This is where Zitlally, whose name means "star" in Nahuatl, went to be alone the day her Papa, an illegal immigrant, was deported. With her Papa gone, Zitlally doesn't want to try to keep up with her wealthier friends. She doesn't want to keep trying in school. She doesn't want to have to put up with the two beer drinking tenants who have moved into the family's trailer. She just wants her father again.
Two weeks after he was sent back to Mexico, Zitlally ventures again into the forest of car parts, where flowers bloom among the wreckage. There she finds a dog, chained to an old truck. On the back of his neck a patch of black fur looks like a star, and so she shares her own name with him.
Ever day Zitlally visits Star. Then one afternoon a stranger follows her into the woods--Crystal, another trailer park resident. She's the girl Zitlally's old friends despised, the girl who's father is in prison. The dog brings them together, and their friendship grows. Hope grows too, when the sale of the family's truck brings enough money for Zitlally's father to pay for another border crossing. But then comes the news that he has been kidnapped as he tried to cross the border back into the US. $10,000, an almost impossible sum, is being demanded to secure his release. And Star has disappeared as well.
In the minds of the two girls, the fate of the man and the dog are linked. If they can find and save Star, maybe Zitlally's father will make it back home safely too...
Star in the Forest is short, and simple, and straightforward. Yet at the same time, in its simplicity are contained multitudes of complexity. It is a book in which large issues, primarily the lives of undocumented immigrants in the United States, are made accessible by the clarity of the child narrator's voice. Zitlally doesn't talk about rights and wrongs--she talks about missing her Papa, about her mother's broken English, about the tension of trying to keep up with girls who have much more than she does. And so her story is one that teaches without being didactic.
The passage that opens the story, which I quoted above, shows, I think, how Resau can write lyrical prose about something horrible without being judgemental. The junky, trashy wood is not condemned--just described, in such a way as to make it almost beautiful. The harsh circumstances of Zitlally's life are likewise described with uncompromising honesty, but Zitlally doesn't pass judgements--she simply lives as best she can. It is left to the reader to draw her own larger conclusions.
One of my favorite posts ever, incidentally, is my interview with Laura Resau, about the intersection of fiction and anthropology.