A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this is a tough, bleak, and rather melancholy fable. A child's parents are murdered in their home by being stabbed in the throat, and a child attempts suicide. A cold-blooded murderer is also a sympathetic character. There is some implied sex and drinking. Even so, beautifully written and seamlessly translated, this winner of the French Prix Sorcieres is sure to get teen readers thinking about some tough philosophical issues, such as, is it possible for a murdered to become a good man?
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What's the story?
Paolo lives with his unloving parents at the end of the world -- the last house, a hut really, in southern Chile, an isolated, storm-wracked place where the land gives way to the southern seas. A stranger, Angel Allegria, arrives one day and murders Paolo's parents, but is unable to kill the boy. On the run from the law for previous crimes, he takes up residence in the hut and, very gradually, he and Paolo come to care for each other. Then into their harsh lives comes another stranger, Luis Secunda, an educated man looking to escape civilization. Paolo convinces Angel not to kill Luis, and so the three settle down for a while, and Luis begins to teach Paolo to read. But eventually they must head back to civilization to buy a few new farm animals, beginning a chain of events that leads to tragedy.
Is it any good?
This book is beautifully written and seamlessly translated, and it has a horrifying fascination. It has the kind of world-view that you don't see much in American children's literature: Life is hard, bleak, and mostly pointless, and the best we can do is soldier on. It's a melancholy world in which a child can love the man who killed his parents for no particular reason, and that love can redeem the murderer, who is executed anyway by an indifferent bureaucracy, leaving the boy alone in the world.
The book lyrically offers a cynical view that sees a world filled with misery, betrayal, and stupidity. But adolescents in their more dramatic moments can see things in the same way, and will find in this lethal prose-poem a truth that they think most literature hypocritically hides from them. Parents may want to suggest a less somber read to help wash this book down.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the violence in this book. There are some pretty gruesome ideas here -- is it too much for a book marketed to young adults, or necessary to tell the story? Is reading about violence different than seeing it in movies or experiencing it in video games?
Also, this book won a pretty major award -- the French Prix Sorcieres. Why do you think it was singled out for this honor? Does it make a difference to you if a book has won awards or not?
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