Sammy is a Chicano teen living in a barrio in New Mexico called “Hollywood,” the irony of which is never far from the surface of a novel about Sammy and his friends, and how they make the transition from boys to men during an exceptionally trying time in U.S. history. Set in 1969, the Vietnam War always looms as a threat, while racism and the violence and poverty in his neighborhood define his daily life. When Juliana, the love of Sammy’s life, is brutally killed by her father, the loss triggers painful memories of Sammy’s mother’s death years earlier. Both women have strong, positive influences on Sammy even after their deaths. He is also buoyed by a positive, caring father and sister, and motivated by a genuine interest in doing the right thing according to his Catholic faith. His religious journey is authentic, full of questions that are never answered. Instead, the world sends him mixed and confusing messages about his potential, and who his friends are.
Sammy is smart, the other kids call him The Librarian, but he faces constant reminders that he is a spic, “an animal,” and destined to end up right where he is. While the graphic violence and strong language make this a book for older readers, none of the content is gratuitous. Rather, it is indicative of the anger and oppression Sammy and his friends feel. One by one Sammy’s friends are taken from him, through death, the draft, and painful family decisions. There are several delightfully hateful adults, including a priest and a teacher who give Sammy plenty of opportunities to learn to rely on himself and his family. While the many deaths are depressing, the ultimate message is how hope and memory combine to free even the most tormented soul. Readers who speak Spanish will enjoy the juxtaposition of two languages throughout the novel.