American Orphan

Arte Público. Mar. 2021. 336p. ISBN 9781558859128. pap. $18.95. F
In this semiautobiographical coming-of-age novel, a young Mexican American man joins a woman whom he had corresponded with while imprisoned. Although self-educated poet Orlando Lucero is an adult, he is in some ways still childlike, with little experience in handling freedom. Returning home, he finds that his brother Camilo, who had sold him dreams of a business partnership, has become addicted to drugs. So Orlando leaves for North Carolina to join Lila, a writer and translator of Latin American verse. He discovers that he isn’t the person he thought himself to be, and he struggles with independence; his plan to go to night school is thwarted by his smuggling drugs for a local crime boss. A revelation, after attending a reading by his poet friend and mentor Denise, leads Orlando back to the Southwest and provides inspiration for transforming his life.
VERDICT Framed as the story of a successful writer looking back on his youth, the novel treads ground similar to Santiago Baca’s memoir A Place To Stand. Despite the familiarity of the material, this is a powerful story of triumph, a tale that juxtaposes hard-edged depictions of youthful brutality with luminous descriptions of the natural world that sustained him through his troubles.
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