Surviving Santiago tells the story of Tina, a teenage girl who returns to Santiago, Chile, from America for a summer to live with her estranged and newly divorced father. Tina’s father was a revolutionary during the dictatorship of Pinochet, and his fight for his people’s freedom has left him broken, physically due to his injuries from beatings by the police, and mentally due to the tortures he has both witnessed and endured. Even though the Chilean people have ostensibly voted Pinochet out, the political situation in the country remains murky, and Papa continues to try and shed light on the activities of the government and military, drowning his anger in continued political agitation and alcohol, leaving little time to rebuild a relationship with Tina.
Tina’s Tia Ileana has been helping take care of Papa, fulfilling her familial duty as an unmarried sister. Unmarried, as we find out, because she is a lesbian, something Papa and his machista culture cannot abide. Coming from the liberal world of Madison, Wisconsin, Tina finds the attitudes in Chile difficult to accept. In fact, her first few days living with her father leave her wanting to return to America. Miller-Lachmann does well with Tina’s teen voice, particularly in these early scenes—measuring summer in Chile as missing ten episodes of St. Elsewhere rings true to my own ‘80s teendom.
Papa mostly just works, talks politics, and drinks. Tia Ileana has her own life. This leaves Tina alone, with the exception of the rehabilitated cursing parrots Papa has taken in. Left with so much time on her own, Tina forms a relationship with Frankie, a motorcycle delivery boy. Frankie has his own issues with an alcoholic father, and he and Tina bond over Metallica, American movies, and video games. But can she trust that Frankie is who he says he is? And will her passions lead her into trouble, a special kind of trouble related to her father’s political activities in a country still ruled by the shadows? Surviving Santiago shifts from a teen romance where our narrator is trying to survive the boredom of her time in Chile to a political thriller where Tina, Papa, and Frankie must worry for their literal survival. But the questions of love are always there: familial love, romantic love, patriotic love, and the difficulties that come when those loves conflict.
The struggles of Tia Ileana and, to a lesser extent, Tina, remind me of In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez, where the Mirabal sisters fight against the dictatorship of Trujillo in the Dominican Republic while simultaneously facing the dictatorship of the machista attitude their own father embodies. Both are works of historical fiction that highlight the lives of women in countries dominated literally and figuratively by men. Surviving Santiago is written primarily for a younger audience, but it too uses political intrigue to powerfully illuminate questions of identity and the duties we have toward family.
Surviving Santiago will be published by Running Press in June.
Full disclosure: Though I have not personally met the author, Miller-Lachmann and I did serve together on a panel for the Cybils last year, and she shared an adorable photo of the panelists portrayed as Lego figures.