by Deborah Ellis
Published by Allen & Unwin
192 pages, 2008
Children in Trouble
Reviewed by Sue Bursztynski
Deborah Ellis specializes in novels about children in the world’s trouble spots. For example, one of her early novels, Parvana, was about a girl trying to cope with life in Afghanistan just after the Taliban takeover. It was successful and the first of a trilogy.
Diego’s Pride, set in Bolivia in the early 2000s, is also part of a series, the sequel to Diego, Run! I haven’t read the first book, but had no problem following this one. It begins with a “story so far” and then just gets on with the current tale. Quite often, there is a reference to what happened in the previous book, but you don’t have to have read that one to understand the action. There is a handy glossary at the end of the Diego’s Pride, but you can generally work out roughly what the words mean.
Bolivia is the source of a lot of coca, the main ingredient of cocaine. The indigenous people of the country don’t grow or use their coca as a drug. To turn it into cocaine, it has to be stamped into a paste and chemicals added. The indigenous Bolivians, most of them poor, living on small farms, grow it to chew or brew as a tea to help them live and work at high altitudes. It is a sacred plant. However, because drug dealers were smuggling it into the United States, the US government wanted the trade stopped. The Bolivian government went overboard to oblige, destroying the small farms which were never intended for the drug trade.
In the early 2000s, huge numbers of coca growers -- cocaleros -- started blockades across the country in protest, bringing the country’s life and trade to halt. Many cocaleros and soldiers were killed in the fighting.
Diego, a boy whose parents have been imprisoned in the city, has fled from a coca-stamping pit where he had worked to get the money to free them, and found his way to a small coca farm owned by the kindly Ricardos, who live there with their children. The Ricardos have given him shelter in return for helping on the farm. When the farm is raided by government soldiers and the entire crop is taken away, the Ricardo family joins others on a blockade, and Diego becomes a part of it. What he really wants is to get the money to take back to his parents, so that they can pay their fines and get out of prison. Can he leave the people who have helped him, however much he misses his family? What will happen when the sympathetic soldiers, most of them local boys, and their honourable captain, are replaced by soldiers from elsewhere, who won’t care who gets hurt? The people on the blockade have until dawn to decide what to do.
The book does a good job of summarizing one of the world’s problems for children. It’s not quite The Grapes of Wrath, but it does show the problems of the poor, in this part of the world at least, and get across the feel of life on the barricade, creating sympathetic characters with a few strokes of the novelist’s brush. There are humorous touches and the book has an upbeat ending.
This is a readable book which should appeal to children in late primary school. | April 2008
Sue Bursztynski is the author of several children's books, including the CBC Notable Book Potions To Pulsars: Women Doing Science and Your Cat Could Be A Spy. Her fiction has been published in various SF magazines. She publishes two blogs, a general one at http://greatraven.blogspot.com and a review/SF blog at http://suebursztynski.blogspot.com. She lives in Australia.