Mom looks at me and sees Grandma Miller’s cheekbones; Dad sees the Carrillo nose. I see one land mass, but I’m wrong. My body is Guatemala crashing into the United States. What happens to me, the whole me, when my plates shift, when my continents tear apart? No one told me twelve was earthquake season.The Other Half of Happy, by Rebecca Balcárcel
With all the news coverage about the caravans of immigrants from Central America making their way to the United States, fleeing persecution and misery in their home countries, we sometimes forget that among us there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of first-generation bicultural Americans living their lives, and growing up in the vast expanses of our country. I say we forget, and I exclude myself; as I am one of those first-generation Americans. It’s not easy for me to forget–a child of Cuban immigrants: one who learned the words to José Martís Versos Sencillos when he was six-years old, at the same time he was learning the Pledge of Allegiance. I really mean all y’all, as I have learned to say over the years (along with bless your heart, under different circumstances). I say our country, because well, bless your heart. Living in the inbetween, is well, challenging.
Straddling a culture you barely know and one you are immersed in can feel like you are living a life off kilter. Indeed, like “living in a tilted house” where “[a] bowling ball on [your] living room floor would roll past the couch, past the dining table, all the way to the kitchen sink.” Such a life, is the life led by Quijana, the one-half Guatemalan, one-half American, 12-year-old protagonist of Rebecca Balcárcel’s stunning Middle Grade debut novel The Other Half of Happy. Quijana, an ordinary girl by any account, lives an extraordinarily ordinary inbetween.
Named after Alonso Quijano, known more commonly as Don Quijote de la Mancha, Quijana navigates the average preteen life: love, family stress, death, angst and insecurities; all the while balancing two cultures, each with their own pressing demands. Her Father wants her to be more Guatemalan, more accessible to his family, more grounded in his roots. As she speaks virtually no Spanish; learning Spanish would be a good start.
At school, she is ridiculed both because she is and is not latina (in appearance yes, in culture, no)–sometimes called a coconut [brown on the outside, white on the inside]. She sings in the choir, loves English class, has two great friends and has trouble with some mean girls. Internally, she struggles to figure out who she is, at the same time rejecting everything she perceives as being forced upon her. I know. She sounds like the ordinary 12-year-old. And that’s why this is extraordinary. As she faces each challenge, and overcomes each perceived failure, she builds her identity with each step. Earning her birth name:
“Out of the fabric of failure, Quixote sews success,” Dad says.
“What does that mean?”
“He makes the effort. For its own sake. His heart is true no matter what.”
“Think of it this way,” Mom says. “The world is always against him, but he tries against all odds.”
. . .
“You don’t have to be perfect Quijana. You are named for an ordinary man. A man who tried his best.”
Mom leans in. “Failing is part of life, more common than not. But the try is what matters, Qui.”The Other Half of Happy
No deus ex machina is lowered from the sky to save Quijana. She struggles, she learns she persists. The story is extraordinary in that Balcárcel has given us an everygirl who is not perfect, yet still overcomes, in small steps, that are achievable for a 12-year-old. A realistic portrayal, eschewing the fantastical, complete with the inherent insecurities, failures and successes. This girl is real. This story is real.
Even the best story, however, would ring hollow without exceptional writing. Fortunately, Balcárcel is exceptional. With a style evocative of Tennessee Williams in his light-hearted moments (laughter that arises from thinking, not slapstick) and the same lyrical-poetic prose, Balcárcel’s words are meant to be read out loud. Take for instance:
I tramp to the backyard, where the grass has turned brown for the winter. I kick Memito’s red ball against the brick wall of the house.
The ball bounces back to me, and I kick it again. Each time it comes back to me I kick it harder. I kick it over and over. I kick the doorbell that went unanswered in Florida. I kick the phone that brought the news. I kick the tears. I kick the cancer. I kick until I am nothing but a kicker, my ears filled with my own pumping blood and the bam, bam of ball on wall. Bam!
On flattened leaves, the ball sits at my feet. It’s stubbornly unaffected; completely undented; round, permanent fact. I give it one more kick, then wander to the swing . . . .The Other Half of Happy
Balcárcel is an effortless storyteller. Effortless, in that her ability to evoke empathy, pathos and wit, sneaks up on you and takes your heart before you can walk off with it. Not effortless in that writing that is this good, is easy. Writing is hard. Reading good writing is easy. This is an easy, deep, lovely read.
This story, however, is not just about those that are bicultural. Millions of people live in the inbetween. And, it is challenging. To one extent or another duality is a part of everyone’s existence. Whether it’s about right/wrong, religion, peer pressure, finances, divorce, death, happiness, change affects all of us. We all (yes, I’m including myself in this one) live with external and internal pressures in the balancing act that is life. And those pressures start at right around Quijana’s age.
It is those ordinary, Quixotic struggles that imbue Quijana with the power of every girl. It is those ordinary Quixotic struggles that imbue us all with the perseverance to succeed; or rather, the need to recognize that “[f]ailing is part of life, more common than not. But the try is what matters.”
An excellent Middle Grade selection, and a strong recommendation for Young Adults and Adults as well, The Other Half of Happy is a reflective, soft-spoken piece of literature that will survive as an evergreen, worthy of its Pura Belpré 2020 Honor.
The Other Half of Happy
More books for this Age Group can be found here.
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