Roaring Brook, April, 2017 225 pages
Our hero, Arturo, is living in poverty in a shack in a dilapidated town on the Mexican/US boarder. His long-lost best friend, who is like a brother to him, Faustino, shows up after a year-long absence. Faustino is in trouble. He has been working for a drug lord/gang leader and has used money entrusted to him to smuggle his girlfriend and baby across the boarder. Now Faustino must pay back the $1,000 or face death. He begs Arturo to use his skills at playing calavera, a card game based on the colorful skulls displayed during Mexico's Day of the Dead. Arturo reluctantly agrees and finds himself playing cards in a game way over his head. The results of the game do not turn out the way he and Faustino have hoped and now he is in debt to the same drug lord for even more more money. Arturo has a mere twenty-four hours to come up with an unheard of $5,000. He first asks his friends, local bar owners. They do not have the money to lend him, but direct him to the home of a former teacher, where is is greeted by a surprise. Other plot twists are revealed, including why he is willing to sacrifice everything to ensure Faustino's girl friend and baby cross the boarder. Arturo hopes that the fates and good luck from Santa Muerte (the Saint Death of the title) will get himself and his friend out of this jam. Will the lady of death come through for him or will he meet the same hopeless fate of many of his countrymen?
Printz winner, Marcus Sedgwick, clearly is no slouch when it comes to writing. He has won one Printz medal, two honors, and many awards in his native United Kingdom. I was skeptical of a British man living in the French Alps writing a book about Mexican boarder conditions, but Sedgwick manages to capture the desperation and grittiness of the local as if he is experiencing this life first-hand. The reader gets a glimpse of the poverty and hopelessness of conditions south of the boarder. Arturo has no options and must throw his very life and the life of his best friend into the hands of the saint of death while gambling on a card game. Sedgwick clearly has an agenda in writing this book bringing up themes of American immigration, global economy and labor practices, and the desperate living conditions in Mexico with all of the poverty, power of the drug lords, and lack of opportunity. Arturo's town is on the boarder and a big wall is a looming presence. The existence of this wall alone makes the book poignant and uncannily timely and will guarantee an audience. The narrative at times is so carefully written it feels like poetry and I had to read some of the passages over again either because they were beautiful--or because I didn't at first understand them. The beginning is a bit tough to get into and because of this, and because of the writerly nature of the book, it will only appeal to sophisticated readers. Saint Death is topical and beautifully written. It is sure to win awards, but will not be enjoyed or understood by the average teen.