Summer of the Mariposas, by Guadalupe Garcia McCall (Tu Books, October 2012, 12 and up), is an utterly enthralling story about five Mexican American sisters who go on road trip to take a dead man home to Mexico, and who are beset by supernatural forces on the way.
When I get a book to review that I already know I want to read, I don't look at the blurb on the back jacket--I don't want preconceptions. I'm saying this because all the while I was reading Summer of the Mariposas, I was thinking--wow, this is almost a retelling of the Odyssey! How clever I am to have noticed this! (I was also thinking that I would never want to take a road trip with a corpse). And then I look at the back, and read, in big letters: "Odilia and her four sisters rival the mythical Odysseus." I guess that means I was on to something, but I feel a lot less original now....
When their papa left Odilia and her sisters, their mama had to go to work. So the girls are spending their summer neglecting their chores and running wild--which includes going down to a secret spot on the Rio Grande to swim. And there, one day, they find a drowned man, and in his wallet are pictures of his children.... Growing up on the boarder, the girls are well aware of boarder crossings gone wrong, and their hearts are moved by the thought of his family waiting for news in Mexico. So the younger sisters decide that the only thing to do is to avoid the tangles of boarder bureaucracy and drive him home themselves. Having made their delivery, they'll then go further into Mexico, to visit their paternal grandma, who they haven't seen for years.
Odilia, the oldest of the five, is the only one who thinks the whole thing is a bad idea. But she can't let her sisters go alone. And so, with the corpse neatly dressed, a touch of rogue applied, and a spritz of perfume for freshness --"Oh great," [Odilia] retorted, "So now he's not just going to look like a prostitute, he's going to smell like one too?"--they cross the border.
But while they were extracting the drowned man from the river, Odilia was visited by the spirit/ghost/goddess Llorona--doomed for eternity to try, and fail, to keep her own boys from drowning. Llorona has come to help Odilia find her way on this quixotic quest--giving her a magical earring that will bring help in times of trouble. The reader begins to suspect that this is going to be no ordinary, earth-bound, adventure...
Indeed it isn't. The girls' journey takes them from one supernatural trap to another. Though Odilia finds her instincts screaming at her with almost every encounter, her sisters rush on heedlessly into danger (it takes the younger girls a long time before they start learning from their mistakes--which is useful for the plot, but which stretches credulity). There's a witch who wants to keep them as her pets forever, an almost deadly encounter with a ravenous chupacabras, harpy-like owls who torment the sisters with a litany of their failings, and a deadly warlock. But each time hope seems lost, Odilia calls on the magic of her earring, and help comes.
And then the girls must go home, face the music of the police and the feds (they were all over the news as suspected kidnapping victims) and bring what they learned back with them to their poor hardworking mama...Which leads to my only slight reservation about the book--the whole quest seemed largely to have come about so that the girls could be pushed into growing-up a bit, which seems like a lot of effort for not all that much point on the Supernatural Force's side of things (although Odilia does give something back). But still. Better that, I think, than the girls being Chosen Ones of Too Much Point--this way, the fantastic is still part of our world, part of the very real character arcs of this family of sisters.
It's often easy to describe a book as an amalgamation of other books...This meets That. It's tricky here, because I can't think of a single other YA book that is at all like a story of five very real sisters on a road trip through a Mexican fantasia (The closest I'm getting is The Indigo Notebook, by Laura Resau, but it's a stretch). The Odyssey meets...something oh so very different from the cannon of European-based quest fantasy, something fresh, and fascinating, and entertaining as all get out.
Here's another review at Finding Wonderland.
Disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher.