Todos Santos by Deborah Clearman
Published by Black Lawrence Press
Trade Paperback $18
Good fiction can do two things very well: make the reader empathetic and take the reader places she wouldn't normally go.
Todos Santos by Deborah Clearman takes the reader along on a journey to Guatemala with her character, Catherine Barnes. Catherine is having marital problems (her professor husband cheats on her), and her teenage son Isaac flunked 8th grade.
She decides to take Isaac to Guatemala, and work on illustrating her next book by visiting the remote town of Todos Santos. Catherine leaves Isaac to work in her sister Zelda's shop while she goes into the interior of Guatemala with Oswaldo, her handsome guide.
Catherine grows close to the owners of the hotel, particularly Nicolasa, a young woman married to a German man, who longs to move to Europe. The town of Todos Santos is wary of outsiders, and many of the residents are whipped into a frenzy by a politician who warns them of Americans who have come to steal their children.
Isaac makes a friend of his own, Ben, a boy from New Jersey who is living with his American family in Guatemala. They make plans to go on an adventure for the weekend, and after tragedy strikes, Isaac is kidnapped.
The author succeeds in immersing the reader in the sights and sounds of Guatemala. You can taste the delicious foods, feel the heat, and she brings alive the vibrant and colorful marketplace, the center of the town.
If you close your eyes, you feel like you are on the crowded bus that Isaac and Ben take on their trip. At every stop, as more people pushed to get on, you get a sense of claustrophobia. When the boys are caught out in a storm on a boat, you feel the rising terror that they feel.
Clearman does a wonderful job with her characterization of Isaac. She really gets into the head of a teen boy- the sulky, sullen attitude they have, mixed with a desire to be adventurous. I felt like I understood where he was coming from, maybe from having two sons of my own.
I didn't feel like I understood the character of Catherine as well. When her son was kidnapped, she seemed to spend more time trying to find romance with Oswaldo than working on getting her son back. I didn't get the sense of terror that a parent would have, learning that her son was missing in a foreign country. I had a difficult time empathizing with her.
I would have liked to known more about sister Zelda; it seemed to me that she has a more interesting story to tell.
I would recommend Todos Santos for anyone who likes to read about other cultures; Clearman clearly knows of what she writes, having visited there many times. The reader gets to see a Guatemala that most visitors don't in this novel.
Rating 3 of 5
Thanks to Sarah at Little Bird Publicity for providing me with a review copy.