In Fontánez’s (On this Beautiful Island, 2004, etc.) illustrated novel, Mateo, a troubled young boy reared in Puerto Rico, returns briefly, but eventfully, to his grandparents’ small island community.
At 12, Mateo is devastated by the death of his young mother, Minerva. The family, divided between the city and the country town of Palo Verde, has attempted to maintain the fiction that Mateo’s mother is actually his widowed aunt Maria. His grandfather forced Minerva to leave their home when, at 14, she became pregnant with Mateo. It’s unclear when Mateo discovered who his biological mother was since he refers to both women by their first names and mourns the untimely death of Minerva with an intensity that nearly destroys his other relationships. Many of the emotions the humans feel appear to be transferred to other creatures: cats, ghosts and even the plant life in the island’s thick forests. Soon after Minerva’s death, Mateo travels to Palo Verde to reconnect with his grandparents and gain some perspective on his loss. Feeling betrayed by his family, he responds to everyone with fury and attempts to shield himself from further pain with pledges to never love again. He crosses paths with a stray cat, whose tragic story is intended to evoke as much sympathy as Mateo’s. The cat’s traumatic odyssey weaves together the same characters and objects most significant to Mateo—Minerva; his best friend, Sergio; the forest creatures; an orange tree; an abusive psychotic and his son; and a magic crystal. But the story of the young boy’s loss is compelling enough without all the touches of magical realism, the constant jumps from past to present, and questionably profound truths: “a tree never forgets an act of kindness,” or “that indomitable law of Nature, bad things come in threes.” The black-and-white drawings, which appear every few pages, are occasionally endearing and impressive but do little to advance or clarify the plot.
If pared down to its essential storyline, this heartfelt tale of a young boy’s pain and reluctance to make connections could form an instructive, charming story for younger readers.