Review of “Gringolandia” by Lyn Miller-Lachmann

This is a terrific YA novel that is set against the backdrop of the Pinochet dictatorship that ruled from 1973 until 1990 in Chile.

The story begins in 1980 in Santiago, when 11-year-old Daniel witnesses his father Marcelo’s beating and arrest for his anti-regime activities. Marcelo’s prison time is harrowing, and he may not have survived but for the fact that his family – now in Madison, Wisconsin – has been successful in exerting pressure to get him released after six hard years in captivity. We next encounter Daniel at age 17, when he goes with his mom to pick up his father at the airport. They hardly recognize the man who limps toward them from the plane.

The remainder of the book focuses on the readjustment of the family – now “Americanized” – to a very much changed Marcelo, and Marcelo’s readjustment to a life free of torture, but not free of pain. Although Daniel’s father is not yet 40, he looks at least 50, is partially paralyzed, has crippling nightmares, and tries to blot out his terrifying memories through drinking.

Daniel, his younger sister Tina, and his mother Vicky have lived in hope for six years for the return of a father and a husband. They are not prepared for the damaged man that returns to them. They struggle with balancing their own needs for attention against Marcelo’s needs arising from his disablements and stress. Further, Marcelo feels he owes it to his still-imprisoned comrades to help get them released. It does not seem right to him to relax in “Gringolandia” while his friends and country still suffer. But can he overcome his own disablement? Daniel’s “gringa” girlfriend, Courtney, thinks she can be the one to help save “Papa.” But the whole family needs saving as well.

Discussion: I am elated to find such a good book that is also instructional and informative, and that will familiarize readers both with international events and with the fact that the U.S. – generally through the C.I.A. – sometimes plays a clandestine role in manipulating them. Both the motives and consequences of this manipulation are not always positive. This book brings the actions of governments down to the personal level in a visceral and heart-rending way, but also shows that individual action can and does make a difference. Awareness is the first step towards change.

Because I don’t know how many readers may get to this book, I am including an excerpt from the “Author’s Note” that precedes the story about the real events that inspired it. (And I would also add here that I think it’s a great idea, in any historical fiction, for authors to set forth the actual historical background, and to distinguish fact from fiction at the outset.)

Author’s Note

“In September 1970, the Chilean people elected as president the socialist physician and politician Salvador Allende. Allende moved to nationalize (place under state ownership) key industries and to redistribute the country’s wealth in a more equitable manner. His actions provoked the United States government, which feared the rise of another Communist nation in the Americas. After a three-year destabilization effort, the United States, through the Central Intelligence Agency, backed a military coup led by Chilean Army commander General Augusto Pinochet.

The coup, which took place on September 11, 1973, led to the deaths of Allende and approximately 3,000 of his supporters, the imprisonment and torture of more than 30,000 others, and the exile or emigration of nearly a tenth of the country’s population. The coup ended Chile’s long history of stable democracy and rule of law – a source of pride for this South American nation – and ushered in seventeen years of violent repression. The Pinochet regime reversed not only Allende’s policies but also earlier decades of social reforms, leaving the economy in the hands of free market policies that brought economic growth along with increasing misery for the poor. Today, Chile has one of the most unequal distributions of wealth in the Western Hemisphere.”

South America with Chile highlighted in red - The longest country in the world, it runs from the southern border of Peru to the southernmost tip of South America, a length of more than 2,700 miles

Evaluation: The story brings up so many issues for discussion even aside from those relating to political events. What happens when a parent changes, and when the relationship between parents changes? What happens when your own relationships go through changes? When is violence an appropriate response and when does it make things worse? What is the difference between courage and foolishness? What are the limits of love? I highly recommend this book.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Curbstone Books, 2009

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15 Responses to Review of “Gringolandia” by Lyn Miller-Lachmann

  1. Nymeth says:

    This sounds absolutely amazing. I love the author’s note – thank you for including it! I don’t know all that much about the Pinochet years (other than what I read in Isabel Allende’s non-fiction and what I saw in a fabulous Chilean film, Machuca, that I had the good fortunate to watch in Brazil once), and this sounds like a perfect way to learn more.

  2. zibilee says:

    Wow! This does indeed sound like a powerful book that addresses many tough issues. I don’t know much about this subject but think that I might enjoy reading this book to discover more about the conflict and the way that it affected the people involved. Great review! I am going to have to look for this one. Thanks for sharing this review with us!!

  3. Trisha says:

    Wow, this sounds like a great book. It’s so nice to see some YA that has some historical and cultural import. I may have to check this one out for use in my Lit course.

  4. Richard says:

    Jill, a YA book without “moon babs”? How refreshing! All kidding aside, journalist John Dinges’ The Condor Years: How Pinochet and His Allies Brought Terror to Three Continents might be an interesting nonfiction read for people interested in more info on the real life background to this topic (I’ve only read part of it but hope to return to the rest at some point). Chilean novelists Roberto Bolaño and Alberto Fuguet have also touched on the theme/era in some of their works. Thanks for the post!

  5. EL Fay says:

    Another great book selection for my sister. Thanks!

  6. Thanks for the review, Jill, and all the great comments. I love the film Machuca, which was on the list of the top Latin American films of the past decade. It shows the way that the 1973 coup changed the lives of two friends–one from a wealthy family and the other a scholarship student from a shantytown near the exclusive Catholic boys’ school.

    Following the Author’s Note, and also in the Teachers’ Guide, I have a list of other books and authors who wrote about this period, ranging from testimonies of torture survivors to the essays and imaginative literature of Isabel Allende and Ariel Dorfman.

  7. bermudaonion says:

    I’ve certainly heard of Pinochet, but really know nothing about him. This is probably written at my level.

  8. Alyce says:

    I have a curiosity about all things Chilean because one of my best friends from high school was part Chilean (and she now lives in Chile). I remember first learning of Pinochet in my high school Spanish class. This sounds like it would be a very good book.

  9. Lisa says:

    What an interesting sounding book. Not that most of the countries that the U.S. has interfered with didn’t have any problems before, but we have so often only made matters so very much worse.

  10. Thank you for the thoughtful comments. In my rewrite of Gringolandia (because it was originally written as a contemporary realistic novel back in the late 1980s and shelved for 16 years), I assumed most readers wouldn’t know much about that time period. In today’s post, I talk about YA vs. adult, but one way in which I thought of this novel as YA is that I consciously rewrote it as a historical novel. For adult fiction, anything that takes place more than 50 years ago is considered historical, but in the case of YA, it’s anything that takes place before the target readers were born.

    In the blog section of my web site, I have an essay on how I turned an contemporary novel into a historical one–the specific changes that I made.

  11. Jenners says:

    Excellent review. It is nice to see what else is out there in YA than vampires and dystopia. And I agree with you that it helps to have some grounding in historical events with an intro in a book like this.

  12. softdrink says:

    You talked me into it, especially since I know squat about Chile.

  13. About dystopic: for NaNoWriMo, I started a YA dystopic novel, but bailed after a day and 1750 words. I still have an outline, but it’s very much on the back burner after a companion to Gringolandia with little sister Tina as the protagonist, already finished and going out to publishers, and a contemporary realistic novel for which I’m now on the fourth chapter.

    I don’t believe in chasing trends but writing the book that speaks to me, even if I have to put it in a drawer until tastes change. It took Gringolandia 22 years from the time I started writing it to the time it was published.

  14. stacybuckeye says:

    What an eye-opening review! The CIA keeps showing up in books I read – and usually not in a flattering light.

  15. I just jotted down the title so I wouldn’t forget it. My Spanish teacher in college told us stories about the coup and how he was forced to flee the country. He told some fascinating and heart-breaking stories. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention.

    –Anna

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