Hardcover, 224 pages
Published October 31st 2011 by Lee & Low Books
Lupita, a budding actor and poet in a close-knit Mexican American immigrant family, comes of age as she struggles with adult responsibilities during her mother’s battle with cancer in this young adult novel in verse.
When Lupita learns Mami has cancer, she is terrified by the possibility of losing her mother, the anchor of her close-knit family. Suddenly, being a high school student, starring in a play, and dealing with friends who don’t always understand, become less important than doing whatever she can to save Mami’s life.
While her father cares for Mami at an out-of-town clinic, Lupita takes charge of her seven younger siblings. As Lupita struggles to keep the family afloat, she takes refuge in the shade of a mesquite tree, where she escapes the chaos at home to write. Forced to face her limitations in the midst of overwhelming changes and losses, Lupita rediscovers her voice and finds healing in the power of words.
Under the Mesquite, in beautiful verse form, narrates the coming of age of Lupita who is uprooted from her native Mexico and replanted on the American side of the body. McCall’s language is lush and her words resonate with anyone who has struggled with dual identity and battled expectations of who she/he should be. Lupita navigates adolescence with her mother beside her, loving her, encouraging her, teaching her to be beautiful in all the different ways she knows how. When Lupita’s mother falls victim to cancer and cracks start appearing in their family, Lupita finds out that life is made beautiful by the little moments that one, unfortunately, cannot bottle up and keep.
There is a skein of authenticity in the narrative voice that makes me suspect that perhaps at least some of the events occurring in the novel are biographical but even if they are not, McCall is successful, in my opinion, in capturing the voice of an adolescent girl who has suddenly been thrust in a position she is in no way prepared for. To be a mother to her many siblings is not something that Lupita ever desired or is prepared for but circumstances change and trouble comes with no warnings.
The emphasis on familial love is something I really enjoyed as are the descriptions of the landscape. I also loved how McCall took a moment to savour the differences in the language; the one Lupita speaks natively and the one she has had to learn. Under the Mesquite is a beautiful novel, about friendships, about love, about loss and letting go. I completely recommend it.