I’m sure I’m not the first person to call Lotería by Mario Alberto Zambrano “devastating” – after all, any book about a child we encounter when she’s already in the state protective custody system is bound to be that. So the issue wasn’t about whether or not this would be a sad story, but whether or not this would be a sad story with a unique point of view, a story that somehow opened us up to sadness in a new way. I’m not saying that would be easy, but then I didn’t take up the challenge, Zambrano did. And in my opinion he was somewhat successful, but not entirely.
The book is in the form of a journal written by Luz María Castillo while she is being held by the State of California. Her father is in jail, her mother has disappeared, and her sister is in the Intensive Care Unit. She refuses to speak with the people assigned to help her, but at her Tía Tencha’s request she writes a journal entry for each of the cards in the Mexican bingo game La Lotería that she just happens to be carrying with her. I found this a bit far-fetched, frankly. Not her naïve aunt believing her journal would clear her brother of the charges against him – that made sense – but of her casual suggestion to use the cards as prompts. It felt too much like a “literary device” to me.
What Zambrano does very well is get us into the head of an 11-year-old girl, however. Her love of her family, her inability to contextualize her parents’ behavior, and her sibling rivalry all come through beautifully. She isn’t the easiest child to get to know, and so her circuitous inner dialog makes sense. She has been through a lot:
We locked the door and held each other like if we were waiting for an earthquake, afraid the ceiling might cave in. A chair would slam against the wall and we’d flinch. Glasses would break. The walls would tremble. They’d scream so loud it felt like wolves were tearing up the house, saying words that didn’t even make sense anymore, and the sounds that did come out of their mouths were like dogs. p. 143-144.
But while Zambrano does write beautifully, I found Luz’s story to be a bit contrived. To be honest, I am getting pretty tired of every book I read having a scene with a young girl having some kind of sexual encounter. I think it’s a dangerous thing to make a real problem – sexual behavior toward children – some kind of literary trope. Modern authors seem to think there’s only one way to show that a woman has had a rough time of it. In this case, I really don’t think the encounter with Luz’s cousin moved the story forward at all – it didn’t lead to more understanding of the characters or of their actions. So I found it distracting, rather than insightful.
Zambrano is a very talented writer, and I do look forward to reading his future works. He has an opportunity to give a real voice to the Mexican-American experience, and with his obvious talent I believe as readers we’ll all be richer for it.
FTC Disclosure: I read this book as part of a TLC Book Tour, and received a free copy of the book in return for my honest opinion. For other takes on Mario Alberto Zambrano's Lotería, please follow the links here. Thanks, as always, to Trish for including me on the tour!