Friday, November 28, 2008

Control issues

There are a couple of ways I know a novel has worked for me. One of them is being so caught up in the story and invested in the characters that I don't notice any of its flaws or question any of its plot points until after I've finished the book. And even then, these problems don't end up detracting from my enjoyment of the book. Matt de la Peña's Mexican WhiteBoy is a perfect example of such a book.

Danny knows he sticks out in National City, where he's spending the summer. Half white and half Mexican, his skin is lighter than everyone else's, he gets good grades at the pricey private school he attends, and he speaks no Spanish. Not that he speaks much to begin with. Ever since his father left, he hasn't spoken much at all. Danny is sure he's the reason his father decided to leave, that he's too white and too much of a disappointment to his Spanish-speaking Mexico-born father. He'd looked up to his father as a kid, still looks up to him although he's gone, even became a pitcher because of him.

When Danny was a kid, his father told him being a great pitcher is better than being a great hitter. The guy on the mound controls the entire game, he'd said. Controls the pace. Who sees what pitch. Who has to dive out of the way to avoid taking one in the back. And then he dropped it. Never brought it up again. But Danny always remembered. That night he put down the bat down and decided to become a pitcher, what he is today.

Secretly, though, it still makes him feel alive to crush something with a bat. Almost as much as striking somebody out. (p. 19)

The guys in National City are shocked when they see Danny, dressed like a surfer and never talking trash—never talking, period—play ball. Especially Uno, whose African-American father wants Uno to join him and his new family in Oxnard. But Uno needs to earn some money first, and the $30 and $40 pots from the neighborhood home run derby competitions may no longer be his to win now that Danny's around. Still, though, Uno can't help becoming friends with the guy. And maybe there's a way for Uno to make the $500 he needs, after all, now that he's seen the way Danny can pitch.

Overall, I really liked Mexican WhiteBoy. I liked the way the story flowed, how everything and almost everyone seemed so real. The relationships and Danny's growth felt unforced and natural, and I could practically hear the characters speaking as I read. That said, there were some unresolved plot points and I had more than a few questions after finishing the book. Take Leucadia Prep, the school Danny attends, for example. In spite of his natural pitching ability, Danny has control problems when he's facing batters, which is why he was cut from his school's baseball team. The way I read the book, he didn't play baseball at all for his school, which later struck me as odd, because I would have thought Danny would at least have been offered a spot on the JV team. Did the school not have a JV team? (I'd think they would, since the school is in Southern California and one of the top high school players in the country was on the team.) Did Danny not make the JV team, assuming there was such a team? (But the coach told him he had "great stuff," and wouldn't JV be a good place to work on his control?) Did Danny choose not to play on the JV team, assuming, again, there was a JV team? (Always possible, but not mentioned at all.)

Does this matter? Well, maybe it will to some. And I will acknowledge that if I am judging Mexican WhiteBoy not by how much I liked it but on less subjective criteria, then, yes, the flaws do matter. But I also have a feeling that this book and Danny and Uno are going to stick with me far longer than books that may be technically "better."

This book is a Cybils YA Fiction nominee.

[cross-posted at The YA YA YAs]

1 comment :

Ben Esch said...

I read Mexican White Boy a few months ago, and it is one of my favorite YA books of the year. Just like in his earlier book "Ball Don't Lie" Matt De La Pena has a real gift for creating interesting, multi-dimensional characters, and I was really drawn into their world.

Also, great website! I've really enjoyed looking around.