I must say upfront that the political agenda in this YA novel made me uncomfortable. Maybe that’s a good thing; we all need to have our assumptions challenged at times, especially political assumptions. However, I don’t know enough about the historical and geographical setting of the book, late twentieth century Chile, to know whether the author was portraying events and government actions accurately and fully or not.
That said, the book is set in Chile—Pinochet’s Chile. The CIA is the villainous corporation in the background, and protagonist Daniel’s Communist father, Marcelo, is the good guy. In 1980 when Daniel was only twelve years old the police arrested Marcelo because he was the publisher and primary journalist for an underground newspaper written in opposition to Chile’s military regime.
After his father’s arrest, Daniel, his mother, and his younger sister Tina flee to Wisconsin while his father remains imprisoned in Chile. Although the small family tries to influence the Chilean government to release Marcelo and other prisoners of conscience, they are also making a new life for themselves in Wisconsin and becoming part of “Gringolandia”, a land their father hates because of its support for Pinochet and his thugs.
When Marcelo is released from prison and rejoins his family in the U.S., there are problems that seem to keep multiplying. How can Marcelo recover menatlly and physically from the years of imprisonment and torture? What is he to do with his life now that he is free? Is Daniel Chilean or American, chileno or gringo? What about Daniel’s gringa girlfriend? Will she ever be able to understand what it means to fight against a repressive and dictatorial government? Can Daniel and his father restore the father/son relationship that was interrupted by his father’s arrest? Can Daniel’s mother return to a traditional marriage relationship after six years of independence in the U.S.?
The story edges into a kind of racism or xenophobia that implies that someone from another culture or country can never understand or relate to a native of, for instance, Chile. This premise is never stated, but it is there under the surface. Also, the ideas that Salvador Allende was a hero, the socialist saviour of Chile (questionable) and that Pinochet was a power-hungry and thuggish dictator (probably quite true) are basic to the story, and again, I’m not really prepared to evaluate the evidence for and against those characterizations. I have heard of the “desaparecidos” during Pinochet’s rule, from 1973-1990, and I’m sure that the imprisonment and torture described in the book were tragically common and standard practice in Chile at the time.
Altogether, Gringolandia was a good story, a useful look at one family’s immigrant experience, and an education in the politics, history, and culture of Chile. I didn’t like the ending of the story very much, but I felt it was realistic and probable for the characters as I’d gotten to know them over the course of the book.