You know how when you read a book that opens your eyes to something you never knew about, it can come to mean the world to you almost instantly? When it rips your heart open and makes you love the characters, it has even more impact. This is exactly what An Uninterrupted View of the Sky by Melanie Crowder is for me.
Francisco is a busy teenager in 1999 Bolivia. He is balancing school with his friends and plans for his future. Plans that do not involve University no matter how many lectures his father gives. And the fights he gets in regularly? What is he supposed do when his darker skin and indigenous heritage cause him to be a constant target for many. All Fransisco's plans for his future and his carefree present are torn from his grasp when his father is arrested and placed in prison under a drug law that allows Bolivian police to circumvent his constitutional rights. Though innocent, the family can not afford a lawyer. Now Fransisco and his sister, Pilar, are forced to live in the prison with their father, though they can escape daily for school. But Fransisco's time there is limited. As soon as he turns 18, he has to leave. Leave his father, who he sees losing a bit of his poet's heart every day. His sister further complicates matters as she is only 8. Fransisco knows he can't leave her in a men's prison, but returning to the rural peasant home of his father's parents seems like the worst possible scenario. As the weeks pass, Fransisco must come to terms with his new reality and figure out a way into the future for himself and his family.
Crowder has a talent for writing complicated, realistic characters who find their way into your heart and take over. Fransisco may be my favorite of her creations to date. He is so surly and full of so much anger, resentment, and frustration. While he's very sympathetic because he's living in a racist, unjust world that is taking everything from him, he also has weaknesses and makes mistakes that are hard on more than just him. He is such a real person and I just wanted to wrap him in hugs and hunt down his mother (who abandons her children in the prison because she can't handle it) and smack her down. Even as his life is crashing down and he realizes the prison is his family's new reality, he stubbornly (and a bit selfishly) clings to his plans and how this is affecting him alone. It is so very much a realistic teen reaction. When his careless thoughtlessness puts his younger sister in a horrifying situation, Fransisco begins to wake up to the reality of exactly what his family is facing. He begins a journey then that is equal parts beautiful and heart-breaking to become the man his father has always seen in him. He begins to forge a new plan for his future, one that will not be the ticket to easy street he thought he would have. But he's willing to work so much harder now.
There are several secondary characters in the novel, all important in how they relate to Fransisco and his journey. The relationship between Fransisco and his sister, Pilar, is the most fleshed out. His mistake causes her so much trauma, and yet she clings to him for protection, and he gives it willingly after that first horrible selfish moment. The majority of Fransisco's focus for most of the book is keeping Pilar safe and figuring out how to make it so she stays that way. At first his plans for this are naive and grounded in his desire to have things his way, but he eventually begins to see how much sacrifice he's going to have to make to keep all his family safe. In the prison is another student in Fransisco's year at school named Soledad. Soledad has lived in the prison a long time and the affect of being a teen girl in a men's prison comes out in how she behaves toward the world. After a while, she lets Fransisco and Pilar into her life, and the three protect each other and become their own little family unit. It's a beautiful and heart wrenching relationship. I love all three of these kids so much. I adored and shed many tears for Fransisco's father too. This man who is a poet and had so many dreams for himself and his children but saw them all ripped to pieces by a racist law, an unjust system, and a corrupt government.
I took a class on South American history in college and never learned about this law and what it did to families. Probably because it was too recent and we didn't make it to the 1980s and beyond. I know my particular professor would not have glossed over it, because he was not one for cutting the US slack for the havoc it frequently wreaks south of its border. Fransisco's father is caught by a law passed to appease America during the "war on drugs". Bolivia had a quota it had to meet to prove to the US it was doing something to curtail cocaine manufacturing. They passed this law that circumvented a citizens constitutional rights and allowed them to hold people without evidence or trial on drug charges. It was pretty much exclusively used to lock up poor, indigenous people. In Bolivia, if a poor family could not live outside the prison without the father's income, the entire family moved into the prison with him. Yeah. Horrifying. Crowder doesn't pull any punches about exactly how horrifying, especially for the girls. She does this without being graphic and with a wide lens pulled way back, but it is impossible to misinterpret what the reality is. In the Author's Note she explains how she learned about this through work she did in Bolivia at the time as a college student. She does an excellent job showing the human cost that politicians so often overlook in their bid to create empires and further agendas.
This book is as real as it gets and is an excellent work of historical fiction. In that, Crowder has developed themes of family, community, and art, and how they can be found even in the harshest, darkest of places. She also shows how hope is an integral part of all that. For all its hard truths, this is a book full of beauty, heart, and hope.
Everyone should read it.