BOOK REVIEW: Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan

"We are like the phoenix. Rising again, with a new life ahead of us."

Pam Muñoz Ryan's Esperanza Rising is one of those books that I passed by in bookshops for years, gazing fondly at the gorgeous cover, but never taking even a moment to read the synopsis on the back. When a co-worker recommended it to me after learning that I enjoyed Thanhhà Lai's Inside Out and Back Again, I didn't hesitate in instantly purchasing it on Kindle, and devouring every last word over the course of a single weekend. Timely and touching; Esperanza Rising is a tale that will overwhelm you with hope, sadness, and love - all while giving a bit of food for thought regarding the very of the moment topic of migration to the United States.

The year is 1930. Twelve-year-old Esperanza Ortega Muñoz has the life many girls would dream of in Aguascaliente, Mexico. The daughter of wealthy landowners, Sixto and Ramona Ortega; Esperanza has lived a privileged existence on the sprawling El Rancho de las Rosas, resplendent with rich foods, a collection of porcelain dolls, and extravagant clothes and celebrations. Days away from turning thirteen-years-old, however, Esperanza's world comes crashing down when her father is slain, the victim bandits harboring hate and jealousy towards wealthy landowners in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution. Now a widow with an inability to run El Rancho de las Rosas alone; Esperanza's mother, Ramona, is faced with the option of marrying a powerful man whom she despises, or fleeing to the United States to provide a new life for her daughter. Selecting the latter; Esperanza's new life begins.

Leaving her beloved grandmother behind; Esperanza and her mother, along with a few of their former servants, secretly make the trek from Aguascaliente to a migrant camp in California, where all must adapt to changes. Once spoiled and pampered; Esperanza is now faced with learning how to do things without servants, and provide for her family all while trying to come to terms with her father's untimely death. When Esperanza's mother becomes gravely ill from a dust storm, then succumbs to depression, everything falls to Esperanza's shoulders. Suddenly, the girl who once spent her days swathed in silk dresses, is learning how to sweep, do laundry, and care for children too young to attend school - all without complaint.

As Esperanza saves her earnings, hoping for the chance to bring her grandmother to the US, she watches the fight for higher wages, better living conditions, and the establishment of a union and strikes formed by other workers swirling around her. It is only through prayer and patience that Esperanza is able to rise stronger and more empathetic than she ever could have imagined - and finally come to the conclusion that all things are possible with perseverance and togetherness.

Admittedly, I never expected to love this story as much as I did; but I didn't fall for it because of the main character. Yes, I was very impressed by the growth we see in Esperanza from beginning to end; but the character who really captured my heart was Isabel. Though only eight-years-old, Isabel was so full of wisdom, curiosity, and hope that I, as the reader, felt it was contagious. Though born to a life of poverty, and harboring an insatiable curiosity about Esperanza's spoiled prior life, Isabel never once projects jealousy; rather, she is proud and grateful of her upbringing. Both selfless and determined, Isabel is a true shining star in the story - showing Esperanza how to do things for herself, and giving her the confidence to be the person she grows into as the story continues. Without Isabel's presence, I truly don't think I would have enjoyed this story as much as I did.

As a new elementary teacher, I feel that this book would be most easily understood and enjoyed by students in fifth grade. Not only does it provide a wondrous story that is easy for numerous students to relate to; it also opens the door for deeper discussions regarding the concepts of racism, class, immigration, and even empathy. This would be a fabulous resource for a cross-curricular lesson with history/social studies or even writing.

Star Rating: ****



ellie said...

Such a wonderful book to review on Cinco De Mayo!

Caitlin&Megan said...

Lovely! Yes, it is a book to adore!

Ivy's Closet said...

Such a beautiful review! Thanks so much. A great gift for the reader!

Hollyn'Stevie said...

Such a wonderful story to fall in love with! Thanks for the great review!

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