Sammy & Juliana in Hollywood-MainPhoto

Sammy & Juliana in Hollywood-MainPhoto
In this gritty immersion into barrio life in Las Cruces, New Mexico, in the late 1960s, Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s narrator, Sammy, doesn’t flinch as he studies and judges the world around him. Teachers and policemen—mostly white—see Sammy and other Hispanic youths as members of a permanent underclass with no future, or real values. Even Sammy, whom all of his friends consider a “good boy,” can’t always contain the anger that sometimes erupts and leads him to fight.

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But Sammy has something that too many of his friends—including his adored Juliana—don’t: a rock of a father who does everything he can to fill the emptiness left by his late mother, and a little sister who depends on him. Hollywood, their barrio, is a microcosm of the larger world, full of love, neighborliness and laughter on the one hand, and family violence, neglect and despair on the other. The heart of the book takes place during Sammy’s junior and senior years at Las Cruces High, when the rioting and discontent on college campuses throughout the US find their echoes in the lives of Sammy and his friends: the draft and the Vietnam “conflict,” racial prejudice, intolerance toward gays.

There is a never-ending seesaw in Sammy’s story between the dark and the light, between the love that makes life worth living, and the hatred and struggle that robs it of hope. Sammy makes no attempt to hide the casual sex, drinking and drug use so common among his peers, but neither does he glorify or celebrate them. This is a wrenching and heart-breaking novel, in which death is never far enough away. A triumph of life over hopelessness and death, this novel is utterly appropriate both for mature teenagers, and the adults who love them.

—Reviewed by Cooper Renner, Retired Librarian, El Paso Independent School District