Vanes­sa Blakeslee
  • Review
By – November 11, 2015

Mer­cedes Mar­tinez, the fif­teen-year-old daugh­ter of wealthy sug­ar­cane farmer Diego Mar­tinez, leads a shel­tered and pam­pered life in 1990s Colom­bia. The coun­try is rav­aged by a decades-long civ­il war, drug car­tel vio­lence, and para­mil­i­tary self-inter­est groups; Mercedes’s Jew­ish moth­er, Paula, found life there unbear­able and long ago left the fam­i­ly to return to her native Mia­mi. Mer­cedes is attend­ed to by maids, armed guards, pri­vate dri­vers, and tutors — but noth­ing can keep her in a safe­ty zone of inno­cence forever. 

Mer­cedes falls in love with Manuel, a pas­sion­ate activist leader of the paci­fist youth move­ment La Maria Juven­tud. Mer­cedes and Manuel arrange clan­des­tine meet­ings and even­tu­al­ly plan to run away togeth­er. How­ev­er, Manuel’s out­spo­ken­ness has put him in grave dan­ger; he is gunned down and dies in Mercedes’s arms. Dev­as­tat­ed and shocked, Mer­cedes escapes to her mother’s fam­i­ly in Miami.

Mer­cedes finds it dif­fi­cult to adjust to life in Boca Raton with her Jew­ish grand­par­ents. Her first meet­ing with Paula, now a psy­chol­o­gist in Jerusalem, is strained and uneasy. Dur­ing the Intifa­da, Mer­cedes vis­its Paula in Israel, where her expe­ri­ences par­al­lel those she had grow­ing up in a war-torn envi­ron­ment. Paula is ded­i­cat­ed to help­ing those affect­ed by vio­lence, yet it is dif­fi­cult for Mer­cedes and her moth­er to con­nect per­son­al­ly. Mer­cedes goes on to col­lege, grad­u­ate stud­ies, schol­ar­ships, and tele­vi­sion and gov­ern­ment posi­tions, but her suc­cess­es and set­backs con­tin­ue to reflect her dif­fi­cul­ties and trag­ic youth due to vio­lence and her own silences.

Mer­cedes is a pro­tag­o­nist whose jour­ney will haunt you. Her youth­ful pas­sions, foibles, mis­placed ideals, issues with trust, and her secrets keep her guard­ed and frag­ile. She seeks res­o­lu­tion to her ques­tions and night­mares when she ven­tures back to Colom­bia fif­teen years after she left.

Blakeslee’s poet­ic lan­guage and exquis­ite descrip­tive detail give Juven­tud a can­vas on which to por­tray what it is like to grow up with dai­ly per­il and fam­i­ly secrets. Where is trust? The book pro­vides a real­is­tic his­to­ry of the drug wars beyond head­lines as it trans­ports the read­er to Colombia’s streets, cities, and farms. The char­ac­ters’ intrigu­ing dis­cus­sions about social jus­tice, good and evil, activism, love, for­give­ness, and hope serve to strength­en and enhance the story’s essence.

Relat­ed Content:

Reni­ta Last is a mem­ber of the Nas­sau Region of Hadassah’s Exec­u­tive Board. She has coor­di­nat­ed the Film Forum Series for the Region and served as Pro­gram­ming and Health Coor­di­na­tors and as a mem­ber of the Advo­ca­cy Committee.

She has vol­un­teered as a docent at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al and Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau Coun­ty teach­ing the all- impor­tant lessons of the Holo­caust and tol­er­ance. A retired teacher of the Gift­ed and Tal­ent­ed, she loves par­tic­i­pat­ing in book clubs and writ­ing projects.

Discussion Questions