Here’s a rather unique literary coincidence: Julia Alvarez‘s Finding Miracles ends with an uncle missing the grandmother’s wedding because of hemorrhoid surgery. Return to Sender begins with the mention of another uncle (in a totally unrelated story) suffering through a hemorrhoid operation. Try and find two books to repeat that experience!
Oh, but I digress …
In Return to Sender, two different families meld into each other, initially from circumstance, and then with heartfelt connections. Tyler Paquette, 11, is shocked to learn that because of his father’s debilitating accident, the family is hiring three Mexican migrant workers (who are brothers) to help run the family farm in Vermont. With them arrive three young daughters; the oldest, Mari, is Tyler’s age, and will soon enough be in his sixth-grade class. Tyler is even more troubled to realize that the Cruz brothers – as competent, reliable, and farm-saving as they will prove to be – are also illegal immigrants. Interwoven with Tyler’s story, are Mari’s letters to her missing mother. Many months ago, Mari’s mother left the family when they were still living in North Carolina to visit her ailing mother in Mexico, and seemingly disappeared somewhere between there and here.
Over the months, the Paquette and Cruz families blend: Tyler and Mari become especially supportive friends; the girls help alleviate Tyler’s grandmother’s paralyzing loneliness after losing Tyler’s grandfather; and Tyler’s parents are gratefully relieved that the Cruz brothers have returned the family farm to full function. Of course, challenges are plenty, too: Mari is targeted at school as an outsider; enough disgruntled townspeople speak out loudly against the illegal workers; immigration raids are not uncommon; and the Cruz family finally learns the fate of the mother.
Alvarez is certainly working with a difficult, timely topic and, while readers will have no doubt as to her own views, her characters openly express battling opinions. The children are certainly the most effected: Tyler’s love of his country and the need to respect his country’s laws are painfully questioned; Mari, as the only sister not born in the U.S., faces a precarious future as she worries about the possible deportation of her parents and uncles, and the challenges her sisters will face if they are forced to live a very different life in the family’s Mexican village. Alvarez thoughtfully offers no easy solutions.
Alvarez won the 2010 Pura Belpré Medal winner for narrative with this title; the prestigious Pura Belpré Awards from the American Library Association ”is presented to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.” The strength of Alvarez’s story is clearly in the individual relationships created and cemented by people with vastly disparate backgrounds. Beyond the official rules and regulations, beyond borders, beyond the headlines, are two friends who share a love of the stars, whose families and lives converge long enough to establish a lasting, human bond.
Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult