Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Land of Forgotten Girls by Erin Entrada Kelly

When her mother Mei-Mei was alive, she would often make up stories for her daughter, Soledad Madrid, now 12.  Younger sister Dominga, or Ming, now 6, was too young to remember her mother who died shortly after their older sister Amelia drowned.  And it didn't take long for their father remarry, and for all of them to immigrate from the Philippines to a small town in southern Louisiana, including the ghost (?) of Amelia.  Amelia often offers Sol helpful advice about staying on the truthful side of things.  But when their father returned to the Philippines without them, Sol and Ming were left in the care of their very cruel and abusive stepmother Vea.

To help her sister cope with their unhappy life, Sol makes up stories, her own or embellishing the ones she remembers their mother telling her.  One of those stories was about their mother's made-up legendary sister Auntie Jove, a beautiful, clever world traveller/adventurer. Ming decides to write to her in the Philippines, in the hope of being rescued from Vea's evil clutches.  She tells Sol that she has received a response and Auntie Jove will be arriving on June 3rd.

While Ming escapes into the idea that Auntie Jove will be coming to rescue them, an idea she believes wholeheartedly, even to the point of packing her suitcase, Sol finds refuge in her best friend Manny, who is Mexican, and a new friend, wealthy Caroline. Caroline is an albino who is the outcast in her family and a girl they had formerly bullied, calling her Casper and even causing her to need stitches after Sol threw a pinecone at her.  But Sol also begins to realize that her little sister is in deep trouble.  Already feeling some guilt about Amelia's death, Sol decides to build her little sister a tree house after Ming tells her about the tree house at school that she hid in during recess.  It is Sol's hope that she can use for refuge from Vea when she needs to,

Sol is more than just a spunky protagonist, she has a strong, independent spirit, and deep down, despite the lying, stealing and bullying she indulges in, she does know right from wrong, and sometimes wrong can also become a survival strategy.  And though she sees the truth of the circumstances she and Ming are caught in,  she is still a child herself, and so she doesn't always have the means to effect change.  Luckily, she meets people who can help her.

Sol. Manny and Caroline decide to sneak into the junkyard to find material for the tree house, but when the junkyard owner discovers them, Sol get caught.  Not surprisingly, she and the junkyard owner reach an accord, from which springs a friendship.

The same thing happens with their silent neighbor, Mrs. Yeung, who may not be able to speak English but who is completely capable of understanding the cruelty that is going on behind the Madrid's closed door and who isn't afraid of Vea.

But sometimes, just when things seem to be at their worst and circumstances looked so hopeless, hope may just be on the horizon.

Reality and fantasy, truth and fiction are at the heart of The Land of Forgotten Girls.  In fact, the title comes from a story that Sol makes up for Ming, about two princesses.   For Sol, navigating between imaginary stories and reality is a life-saving coping mechanism, but for Ming, it is a danger as she slips more and more into the imaginary and depression, and less in reality.

Vea is a character you won't soon forget.  She's an angry, sadistic woman, who knows that she will never hurt Sol to the extent that she would like to, but that Ming is easy prey for her.  She also knows that the older sister's protectiveness towards her little sister is the way to hurt Sol.  But she misjudges Sol's strength and determination that she and Ming will survive Vea however they can.

The Land of Forgotten Girls is a coming-of-age story about the difficulties of the immigrant experience, of feeling invisible to the world and never fitting in, of always being on the outside and no one caring what happens to you.  Some of the themes touched on are loss betrayal, sister relationships, friendships, child abuse, racism, and hope.

In the end, though, I wish Kelly had included more about being Filipino in an adopted country, the way she had in Blackbird Fly, her debut novel.  And I wish the ending had been for definitive.  But I would still recommend this novel to young readers.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL


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