Desert Angel

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
Desert Angel Book Poster Image
Teen flees mom's killer in gripping thriller.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational value

The book is more a thriller than an educational work, but young readers may pick up some Spanish from the dialogue, as well as some regional history. They'll also get a window into the life of kids probably much different from themselves, living a perilous existence between unfit parents and the foster care system.

Positive messages

Through life-threatening circumstances, Angel, who has never encountered a stable, reliable person in her life, finds people she can trust, and in turn becomes a person they can depend on.

Positive role models & representations

While positive role models have been nonexistent in Angel's life up to this point, and she is surrounded with more than her share of violent criminals, a number of heroes step forward from among seemingly ordinary folk, including the resourceful Abuelita, who helps hide her from Scotty, and Rita, who puts her to work in a Head Start class and gives her a few lessons in family values along the way.

Violence

Angel is in constant and very real fear of her life; the story starts with her mother's murder, her discovery of the body, and Scotty's attempt to murder Angel to hide the crime. In addition to murdering humans, Scotty kills the domestic animals of people who annoy him. While description of gory details is sparse, the scary vibe remains fairly relentless throughout, as Angel vacillates between fleeing in terror and, later, plotting revenge. In addition, one of the Head Start children comes from an abusive home, and details of her situation emerge along the way.

Sex

The narrative starts by explaining that Scotty, the latest in a long line of her mother's abusive boyfriends, has been climbing into bed with Angel since early in the relationship, which is why Angel heads for the desert as soon as her mom and Scotty start fighting, to forestall the whole thing. It's during one of these episodes that her mom is murdered. And there is the continuing threat that Scotty would track her down and kill her, as well.

Language

Mild profanity: "hella," "bitch," "dicking with me."

Consumerism

Angel has led such an economically deprived existence that she refers to soft chairs "like the fancy ones at the Salvation Army."

Drinking, drugs & smoking

Angel's mother and the no-good men in her life abused drugs and alcohol. Scotty is one mean meth-head. With their cautionary example before her, Angel has little inducement to sample that lifestyle. On the other hand, when she enlists the aid of some young people in tracking down Scotty, marijuana is used as currency for information without much thought, though Angel herself doesn't use it.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that this follow-up to last year's Edgar Award winner, The Interrogation of Gabriel James, is a taut, well-written page-turner that benefits from the author's experience working with troubled youth. Angel's whole life has been something parents hope their own kids never experience: a drug-addicted mom with more optimism than sense, whose succession of abusive men culminates in Scotty, a cunning meth-head who abuses Angel sexually (though we're spared the details), murders her mother, and is bent on killing her, as well. In order to save her own life, the 14-year-old, sporadically homeschooled Angel, in the middle of the desert and dependent on the kindness of strangers, must call on resources she didn't know she had -- and become a person she didn't know she was.

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What's the story?

Fourteen-year-old Angel flees violent meth-head, sexual abuser, and skilled hunter-tracker Scotty after he murders her drug-addled mother and comes after her because she knows he did it. With few resources of her own after a rootless existence with her mom, and in the middle of the California desert, she must rely on the kindness of chance-met strangers to survive. A hardscrabble community of Mexican Americans, some of whose immigration status is uncertain, puts itself in danger to help her, confronting her with moral issues she's never considered about the impact of her own troubles on others as her thoughts veer between survival and revenge.

Is it any good?

Price won an Edgar Award for 2010's The Interrogation of Gabriel James, and this book keeps up the standard for its well-crafted, fast-moving plot and engaging characters. It's a window into a world whose darkness most readers won't personally experience, but they'll find much to admire in Angel's tenacity and resourcefulness, and much to think about in the lessons she learns along the way.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the predicament of kids who have to be self-sufficient much too early, as Angel did, with a substance-abusing mom and a few stints in the foster-care system even before the events of this book. Do you know any kids whose lives have forced them to grow up much too fast? How can you make things easier for them?

  • You probably won't have to run for your life from a vicious killer in the middle of the desert, but if you found yourself stranded in the wilderness, what's your survival plan? How would you get help or find your way out?

  • If, like Angel, you found yourself seeking help at a home where the residents spoke Spanish, could you carry on a conversation?

  • Angel learns a lot from the younger kids in the Head Start program. As a teen, have you had any interesting conversations with 4-year-olds lately?

Book details

For kids who love thrillers

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