Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Review of The Last Summer of the Death Warriors by Francisco X. Stork

Stork, Francisco X. The Last Summer of the Death Warriors. Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 2010.

What do people see when they look at you? Do different people see different things? Do any of them see the "real" you? Can anyone see a complete picture? Is there a "real" you at all, and how do you find out what it is?

These are the sorts of questions that arose as I read this excellent coming-of-age novel. Pancho is a New Mexico teenager to whom several awful things have happened all at once - his dad died in an accident, his older "simple" sister died in what Pancho considers to be suspicious and sordid circumstances, and he has not been allowed to stay in his family's trailer, being deposited instead at an orphanage run by Father Concha.

I was certain that Father Concha would be a pivotal character, but instead this story is about how Pancho's quest to get revenge for his sister's death gets entwined with the need of fellow "orphan" (although not really - his mother is very much alive) D.Q. to live out what days remain to him as a "death warrior," sucking marrow out of the bones of life before he dies of cancer.

Pancho sees his life - and himself - as empty and meaningless. All he cares about at first is getting revenge, and then he figures he'll get sent to jail, where he'll be killed. And that's fine with him. But D.Q. sees something else in Pancho the moment he claps eyes on him - a fellow death warrior and, more importantly, a potential friend. And although Pancho doesn't understand or particularly like this odd, brainy, desperately ill white guy, there's no denying that D.Q. has some uncanny insight. While other folks see all kinds of things in Pancho - tough guys see a fellow tough guy looking for a fight, little kids see someone to play with, talk to, and trust, and a certain girl sees someone she could fall in love with - D.Q. seems to see all of Pancho all at once.

It's how Pancho learns how to see - and understand - himself as well as the people around him that is the heart of this story. The reader has to get to know Pancho, and he doesn't make it easy, but by the end of the book we know and appreciate him as much as D.Q. does. Pancho is the kind of rich and completely real character that is hard to part with at the end of a story - I'd like to find out what he's doing in 5 years, and in 10.

Highly recommended for ages 13 and up. By the way, this is the third absolutely excellent coming-of-age story I've read recently that features a teenage boy, after The Cardturner and As Easy as Falling off the Face of the Earth. Very refreshing trend.

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