The Land of Forgotten Girls
Erin Entrada Kelly
Greenwillow, 2016 304 pages
Twelve-year-old Sol and her little sister Ming live in a poor section of town outside of New Orleans with their evil stepmother Vea. Immigrating from the Philippians to the US has not worked out the way Vea imagined and is bitter and nasty and horrible to her two charges as a result. Sol and Ming spend their days wandering around the neighborhood, often with Sol's best friend, Manny. Summer starts off badly. Sol hits a rich girl in the face with a pine cone, resulting in stitches and guilt and Ming displeases Vea to the point of having her favorite stuffed animal destroyed and discarded by her guardian. To comfort her sister Sol shares stories she learned from her deceased mother about a legendary aunt who has many wonderful adventures. Ming becomes convinced that the aunt is coming to take both of the girls away. Sol must rely on her vivid imagination to offer Ming hope when she is disappointed in the failed rescue. Meanwhile a run-in with a notoriously mean neighborhood junk yard man brings unexpected results, as does an encounter with an elderly neighbor. Sol continues to live in her imaginary world for survival and to cope in what feels like a hopeless situation. She has learned to escape into her imagination ever since the death of a second sister, of which she feels responsible, the death of her mother, and immigrating to a scary new place. Confessing and apologizing to the pine cone crime brings yet another new friend and even though the sister's lives do not significantly change, they, at least, have friends on their side and life is a bit more manageable by book's end.
This is Kelly's sophomore attempt after the critically acclaimed Blackbird Fly, another heartfelt realistic fiction selection for middle grades. The Land of Forgotten Girls is a solidly written story with character development and ethical dilemmas. This character driven novel features a diverse and interesting cast of characters that practically jump off the page. The Louisiana setting is integral to the story and the reader can practically feel the heat and humidity. This is a quiet book, yet not boring. The stepmother is truly evil, like a fairy tale character, but as the story moves along we see layers of her and realize that she may have been good once and that life has worn her down. One must wonder while reading this book where is child protective services, as these girls are being clearly mentally and somewhat physically abused? I think Sol's main motivation is to keep her and Ming together, so it is better to try to survive living with Vea than to chance the foster-care system. I was hoping that the legendary aunt would actually show up and whisk the girls away, but life is not a fairy tale. The aunt never arrives and Sol is left to pick up the pieces, but as she begins to pick them up unexpected help arrives from caring adults. There are no easy answers. The girls remain living in poverty with Vea, yet with their new friends there is hope and support and a general feeling that everything will be okay. A glimpse into the struggles of immigrants and other Americans living on the fringe that may lead our privileged children to be aware and empathize with those less fortunate.