Review: ‘Return to Sender’
By Genesee Mullin – Special to the Express-News
Return to Sender
By Julia Alvarez
Knopf Book for Young Readers, ages 10-12, $16.99
Don’t let the pretty cover or the young adult classification fool you. Julia Alvarez’s latest novel, “Return to Sender,” delivers a powerful message about America’s questionable immigration policies while still targeting younger audiences. While the narrators of this story might be young, the problems they face are ageless and relevant to a reader of any age.
“Return to Sender” begins when 11-year-old Tyler’s father is injured in a tractor accident and their rural Vermont dairy farm is left without a work force. Tyler’s family makes the difficult decision to hire an unauthorized immigrant family from Mexico to supplement their labor needs, and Tyler questions whether saving the farm is worth the price of breaking the law.
Tyler’s ethical predicament deepens as he befriends the daughter of one of the migrant workers, Mari, who is dealing with the disappearance of her mother and beginning a new life far from home. As Tyler and Mari’s friendship grows, Alvarez examines the moral complications that ensue as both struggle to define patriotism and remain loyal to each other while still abiding by the law.
Alvarez, the Pura BelprÈ award-winning author of “How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents” and “Once Upon a QuinceaÒera,” manages to write an emotional tale that addresses the more controversial issues surrounding immigration policy, including the construction of the infamous border wall between the United States and Mexico. Her abilities as a writer are showcased in the way that she accesses difficult subject matter by writing through the eyes of children caught in a struggle much larger than themselves.
While the content of “Return to Sender” is sometimes mature (Mari and her family live in constant fear of a raid by la migra — Immigration and Customs Enforcement), the novel is deftly written to be appropriate for kids younger than 10.
In fact, I strongly recommend Alvarez’s book for children who are asking what immigration is and why a wall separates our country from our southern neighbors.
Be forewarned, however: “Return to Sender” is not entirely neutral on the subject of immigration. Alvarez, a New York City native raised in the Dominican Republic (“When I was three months old, my parents, both native Dominicans, decided to return to their homeland, preferring the dictatorship of Trujillo to the U.S.A. of the early 50s,” she says on her Web site), is clearly attempting to send a message by writing an emotionally charged story about a hot-button issue. Her criticism of recent immigration policy might not be wholly understood by young readers, but parents will surely detect the book’s political implications.
Balancing between this larger sense of partisanship while remaining authentic to the voice of pre-adolescent narrators is perhaps the one area where I could find fault in Alvarez’s writing. I found reconciling the necessary childishness of her characters with their sometimes extraordinary political insight somewhat confusing and can’t help but wonder if Alvarez would have been better off aiming for a slightly older audience.
However, “Return to Sender” would be a strong choice for bright young readers or their politically oriented parents. It is a novel that communicates in compassionate and expressive prose the more difficult points of perhaps the most pressing social issue of our day.
“Return to Sender” is a timely novel about the power of friendship to connect even the unlikeliest of pairs beyond any border.
Genesee Mullin is a senior at the International School of the Americas.
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