This story takes place before, during, and after the Pinochet reign of terror in Chile in the 1970’s. Although the dictator’s name is never mentioned and the author takes some liberties with the timeline and with the historical facts, Ms. Agosin, who herself lived in Chile during the Pinochet years, brings to life the anxiety and the courage that emerged in many of those who experienced the “desaparedcidos” and the government repression that took place during Pinochet’s presidency.
Celeste is an eleven year old only child who lives with her parents, her grandmother, and their live-in cook and nanny, Delfina, in Valparaiso, Chile. The book begins by painting a carefree, somewhat sheltered childhood for Celeste, but her pre ants, both doctors, are just beginning to show Celeste the poverty and need that lies below the surface in Chile’s slums where the two physicians practice medicine in a number of free clinics. Then, Celeste begins to notice that things are changing at school and at home as many of her classmates begin to drop to of school and “disappear”. Either their parents have been arrested, or the families are in hiding. No one really knows, and no one wants to be caught talking about the possibilities.
Celeste’s parents also go into hiding, and Celeste herself is sent to Maine to live with her Tia Graciela. The second part of the book, about a year or a year and a half, takes place in Maine as Celeste learns what it means to be a refugee in a foreign land with the help of a loving, but somewhat unusual, aunt who reads tarot cards for a living and lives mostly in seclusion, still getting over an unhappy love affair. Celeste goes to school, learns English, and makes friends.
Then, the government changes again, and Celeste can return to her beloved Chile.However, Celeste’s parents are not able to return home without Celeste’s help. In fact, they seem to have suffered so much that they have become indecisive and unable to function as adults. This part of the novel felt real, but the fact that Celeste takes this kind of abdication in stride was a bit surprising. The story ends with Celeste beginning her own project to help her country heal from the years of oppression and dictatorship.
This book is long, 453 pages, rather fanciful, poetic and even superstitious at times, and it moves slowly. Many readers won’t have the patience for this one, but those who do will be rewarded with a story that introduces children and adult readers to the zeitgeist of a Chile molded by years of government oppression and poverty and repression of free speech and other freedoms that we in the U.S. take for granted.
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This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.