Seldom is a book this much fun before the story even starts. Pam Munoz Ryan dedicates Esperanza Rising to the memory of her abuelita (grandmother) who is the inspiration for this novel. Her acknowledgements, like her chapter headings, reflect the life of seasonal workers in California: baskets of grapes to her editor for patiently waiting for fruit to fall; roses to four friends for sharing their stories; and smooth stones and yarn dolls to four experts for their expertise and assistance.
That’s not all. She gives two Mexican proverbs that will form a theme for her book. She gives them in both Spanish and English. “He who falls today may rise tomorrow,” and “The rich person is richer when he becomes poor, than the poor person when he becomes rich.” I found the first quite easy to absorb. I understood the second more clearly after reading her book.
Esperanza, early in the story, loses her position as wealthy landowner’s daughter in Mexico when her father dies and his property is taken over by his stepbrothers. With her life and her mother’s in danger, their servants help them escape to California to join the servants’ extended family in the life of crop workers. The metaphor for their new life is the crocheted afghan with its hills and valleys begun with her abuelita before she leaves Mexico.
The time parallels The Grapes of Wrath and includes the conflict between those who want to go on strike for better wages and conditions and those who are loyal to the company, grateful just to have jobs. Both groups fear the Okies who are willing to work for even less money making it hard for the other workers to make demands for better pay. Repeatedly, Esperanza is called on to have empathy for all these, even those with whom she does not agree, because in their own way they are looking for a way to feed their families.
I think I’ll not spoil the ending when I reveal her last words to her younger friend Isabel who is learning to crochet as she unravels her uneven stitches, “Do not ever be afraid to start over,” or to say that the engaging tale leads to understanding of the second proverb at the book’s beginning.
The story also remains intriguing after it ends. The “Author’s Note” tells about the real Esperanza and how her descendants have left the valleys and reached for the hills. She closes her note with, “It is no wonder that in Spanish, the word esperanza means “hope.” This is a great read for the young people for whom it was written, but why let them have all the fun?
This was the August selection for the de Grummond Book Group that meets on the third Thursday of each month at 11:30 AM in the de Grummond exhibit room at Cook Library on the University of Southern Mississippi campus. If you are in Hattiesburg, join us for a September discussion of Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer. If not, try starting a YA/Children’s book discussion of your own. It’s great fun!