Book: “Saint Death” by Marcus Sedgwick
Publishing Info: Roaring Book Press, April 2017
Where Did I Get This Book: The library!
Book Description: In a shack on the outskirts of the border city of Juarez, a teenage boy is visited by a long-lost friend.
Arturo scrapes together a living working odd jobs and staying out of sight. His friend Faustino has joined one of the city’s violent drug gangs. Now Faustino is in trouble: he’s stolen money from the narcos to smuggle his girlfriend and her baby into the U.S., and he wants Arturo’s help getting it back before they kill him for what he’s done.
Review: One of the greatest discoveries that our book club helped me make was Marcus Sedgwick. When we read “Midwinterblood” I was completely enthralled by it, it’s dark fantasy/horrorscape sucking me in and twisting me all around. When we went to ALA in 2014, one of my greatest moments was meeting Mr. Sedgwick at a book signing (and a coffee klatch!), and getting to talk a little bit about the movie “The Wicker Man” with him, as “Midwinterblood” definitely took influence from it (and I’m talking about the original “Wicker Man”, not the one with Nicholas Cage in a bear suit). So now I do my best to read any Marcus Sedgwick books that cross my path. While none have quite lived up to “Midwinterblood”, Sedgwick has become one of my favorite YA authors. And that brings me to his newest YA novel, “Saint Death”. And amazingly, I think it’s his darkest one yet.
I will admit that I was a little hesitant to pick this one up when I first heard about it. After all, the subject of life for Mexicans in the border towns, especially Juarez, is a difficult and painful one. American corporate interests and consumption of illegal drugs has led to massive poverty, and lots of gang warfare between various Cartels. So yeah, my teeth got set a little bit on edge when I found out that a British man was going to tell a story set with this backdrop. I’m still not totally certain if I think it’s his story to tell. BUT, that said, I think that Sedgwick did take it on and portray it in a sensitive and responsible way. It’s pretty clear that he did some massive research on his own, and asked for input from those who may be more familiar with the realities of this situation. And besides, “Saint Death” pulls no punches in postulating where some of the blame can be laid for the violence, corruption, and poverty that is seen in Juarez. American corporations exploit NAFTA to profit off of factories across the border that make them richer but barely pay anything to the workers, and the American consumption of illegal drugs fuels the Cartels. Throw in the topics of undocumented immigration and closed borders, as well as some climate change to boot, and you have yourself a very political book that makes it’s readers question how culpable they are through Capitalist ideals and the supposed free market.
But even without the frank and brutal politics, the characters in “Saint Death” really kept me interested and invested. Arturo and Faustino both make terrible decisions in this book, decisions that may have baffled and frustrated me. But at the same time, because of how well written they both were, I not only believed that they would make them, but I also understood exactly why they were making them. Though it’s Faustino whose choice to steal money to save his girlfriend and baby sets our story in motion, it’s ultimately Arturo whose story we follow. His journey to try to get one thousand dollars for his friend is a short one, and only takes place over a couple of days, but so much happens and he grows and changes so much you really see how his circumstances have completely changed him and the course of his entire life. Even if we spend a comparatively short time with Arturo, Sedgwick does a great job of getting you attached to him. I felt completely tensed up as he got deeper and deeper into Faustino’s mess, especially because of the impending sense of doom that lingers throughout the pages. In part this is because of the presence of Santa Muerte, a folk saint that the people in Arturo’s community have come to worship, including Faustino. While Arturo goes in not believing in Santa Muerte, she is in the pages, given her own perspective points and waxing about the human race as a whole. I loved this device, as it was a great way to tie in the global politics to Arturo’s story.
Finally, while I don’t want to spoil anything about this book and the places it goes, I need to address one thing in vaguest terms possible. Remember all those times I’ve said that I hate last minute twists that feel like a cheap way to try and shock the readers one last time? Well, this book did that. But it did it SO WELL that it achieved what those kind of twists are supposed to achieve! When I got to that quick and fleeting passage that changed SO MUCH, I literally gasped out loud and yelled
Now THAT is how you pull off the end page twist. I salute you, Mr. Sedgwick!
“Saint Death” is a difficult book to read, but I think that it’s a pretty important one. I’m impressed that Sedgwick trusts his YA readers to be able to take on these topics and think critically about them, and hope that more authors follow his lead. Just be sure to steel yourself for something very dark, as important as it may be.
Rating 8: A tense and politically relevant thriller that raises a lot of questions about politics, capitalism, and American social values, and how they affect people living in Mexican border towns.
Find “Saint Death” at your library using WorldCat!