I spoke with my students just last week about how books are both mirrors and windows, reflecting on our own lives and also providing glimpses into lives much different than ours. Mirrors that help us see ourselves with deeper understanding, windows that help us understand others more deeply, building empathy for others. Playing For The Devil’s Fire by Phillippe Diederich is a needed window into life in contemporary Mexico and the necessity of building empathy rather than walls.
Boli shoots marbles with his friends, begrudgingly goes to work at the family bakery after school, helps take care of his abuela, and has a crush on an older girl. Much as it has always been—the rhythms of life maintained in Boli’s small Mexican pueblo. But those rhythms are forever disrupted when the head of a local teacher turns up in the plaza. Boli is old enough to hear the whispers about how the new highway has brought new faces with expensive vehicles to his isolated village, old enough to understand the anxiety in his parent’s voices, old enough to worry about them when they travel to nearby Toluca. And old enough to be more than worried when his parents do not return.
Diederich, who grew up in Mexico City, skillfully contrasts Boli’s innocence and goodness with the encroaching corruption and violence, showing us how fear, weakness, and greed lead to complicity with those corrosive forces. Boli’s fascination with lucha libre (Mexican professional wrestling), with its relatively clean delineation between heroes and villains, becomes more complicated when he attends the matches at his local fair. Here Diederich introduces El Chicano, a luchador in whom Boli puts his hopes for finding out what happened to his parents, his hopes for goodness overcoming evil. El Chicano may not be the hero Boli wants him to be, but he might just be the hero Boli needs him to be. Boli cannot regain his innocence, but must his goodness become yet another casualty?
To his great credit, Diederich does not patronize the reader with a clean and happy ending. Mixing in occasional Spanish words and phrases (with a helpful glossary for those who don’t speak Spanish or didn’t learn certain “saltier” slang in school), Playing For The Devil’s Fire makes the story of narco violence and its impacts real in ways that faceless news stories cannot, and I recommend it highly.