On the outside, everything looks perfect in Rhonda's world but at home she has to deal with a manipulative father who keeps her mentally ill mother hooked on pharmaceuticals. The only reliable person in Rhonda's life is her family's Mexican yardman, Jesús. But when the INS deports Jesús back to his home state of Oaxaca, Rhonda is left alone with her increasingly painful family situation. Determined to find her friend Jesús, Rhonda seizes an opportunity to run away during a camping trip with friends. She swims to the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, cuts her hair and assumes the identity of a Mexican boy named Angel. She then sets off across the desert to look for Jesús.
I have really mixed feelings about this book. On one hand I loved it. It is an interesting coming-of-age tale that is well-written, has sympathetic characters, and is honest and unapologetic in its portrayal of life and people. I enjoyed the author's ability to create the two startlingly different worlds of Mexico and the United States. I appreciated Rhonda figuring things out gradually, making mistakes and only after a time realizing where and how she erred or failed to see a more logical course of action. I liked that Rhonda's search for Jesús and her crossing the Rio Grande played both literal and metaphorical roles in the shaping of her identity. I was glad to see that the author detailed events that were significant for the story and glossed over the parts that didn't have any important developments or where Rhonda was too single-minded in her purpose to really pay attention to her surroundings. Even the predictability of the ending didn't spoil the experience for me and I smiled through much of the last chapter.
Sounds pretty perfect, right? Not quite, and it took me a while to figure out what it was exactly that was bothering me. Finally I decided that everything being about sex at the end of the day combined with the fact that the protagonist is only 14 years old rubbed me the wrong way. May be I'm naive and had a more sheltered adolescence than I realized, maybe that's how it is for a lot of teenagers, especially those who don't grow up in happy families and look for the affection and warmth of a loving relationship in all the wrong places, but the lascivious comments, the boldness of advances, the graphic descriptions of encounters made me uncomfortable. Rhonda is only 14 through most of the book, turning 15 towards the end, and yet the adults around her act as if she is one of them and even her own thoughts and actions seem at times more fitting for an older young woman. Then again, none of the events rang false, none were hard to believe in the context of the novel, so my discomfort is not due to the author's inability to convince me but rather my own conviction that some things should not happen.
I would recommend this novel to any reader who enjoys books about growing up, adventure and serious soul-searching. Just bear in mind, there are adult scenes and some pretty uncomfortable subjects.