Kate’s Review: “Patron Saints of Nothing”

42166429._sy475_Book: “Patron Saints of Nothing” by Randy Ribay

Publishing Info: Kokila, June 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: A powerful coming-of-age story about grief, guilt, and the risks a Filipino-American teenager takes to uncover the truth about his cousin’s murder. 

Jay Reguero plans to spend the last semester of his senior year playing video games before heading to the University of Michigan in the fall. But when he discovers that his Filipino cousin Jun was murdered as part of President Duterte’s war on drugs, and no one in the family wants to talk about what happened, Jay travels to the Philippines to find out the real story.

Hoping to uncover more about Jun and the events that led to his death, Jay is forced to reckon with the many sides of his cousin before he can face the whole horrible truth — and the part he played in it.

As gripping as it is lyrical, Patron Saints of Nothing is a page-turning portrayal of the struggle to reconcile faith, family, and immigrant identity.

Review: There are some days that I open up my news feed and just feel utter despondency. There are so many horrible things going on in the world right now that they sometimes blur together for me, and then I become peripherally aware of some but not as knowledgeable about others. This is representative of my general awareness/lack of knowledge about Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, and his human rights record, specifically the fact that his ‘war on drugs’ has led to numerous murders and deaths of drug addicts and dealers all under government approval. Given that I knew a little bit about his policies (and how much they horrify me), my knowledge of Filipino society, culture, and history, both before and during his rule, is scant. So I was very interested in reading “Patron Saints of Nothing”  by Randy Ribay, as it focuses on these themes yet is written for an audience who may be unfamiliar. I buckled up for an emotional ride.

“Patron Saints of Nothing” approaches the controversial Duterte regime and its policies through the eyes of a Filipino-American teenager whose cousin Jun was killed, supposedly because of drugs. Jay is a good way for the audience to connect to the story, as while he himself was raised by a Filipino father, his American experience (and his father’s personal need to assimilate) has superseded his Filipino culture. But guilt and sadness over his cousin’s death is the perfect motivator to send him on this personal journey where he will learn about himself and also the culture that he hasn’t paid much attention to, or has taken for granted. As Jay learns about the society that Jun lived and died in, we are presented with a crash course of information about the modern day Philippines and the policies of the Duterte regime. Jay sees Duterte and his policies through American/Western eyes and values, and while he talks about the violence and the human rights violations that are incredibly disturbing, there is a stark contrast to how many Filipinos feel about said policies. I really liked how Ribay definitely addressed how brutal and corrupt this dictatorship is, and addresses the Marcos dictatorship as well, but also doesn’t pass judgement on those who live there who may not feel the same way. One really good example of this is Jay’s uncle Tito Maning, who is a government official and is incredibly loyal to Duterte, so loyal that he sees his own son’s death as justified. Ribay isn’t hesitant to show what kind of environment this man has fostered within his own family, and is absolutely critical of his blind loyalty and its consequences. But at the same time, Tito Maning isn’t a moustache twirling villain. Ribay makes sure to show how someone like him could still be loyal, in spite of his loyalty costing him is son, and how his choices aren’t as black and white as our own personal experience might perceive them to be.

The mystery about what happened to Jun is also well done and well paced. Jay has to make connections with family members, friends, and activists to figure out just what happened to his cousin, and I greatly enjoyed following him as he tries to find the puzzle pieces. You get the sense that there is more to the story than that which is presented to Jay, and themes of social justice and activism, and the dangers it can put you in within a dictatorship, are added into the drug war at hand. I didn’t feel much suspense when following this story, but I liked that the stakes were high regardless. What added to this is the epistolary aspect of this book, through letters that Jun sent to Jay over the years. It helps you get a sense of who Jun was outside of a victim of violence, and it helps you understand Jay’s own need to understand what happened to him. There is a lot of sadness permeating this story, sadness about what happened to a young person like Jun, sadness over the injustices of the society he was living in, and sadness for Jay and his own residual guilt, be it earned or not. The mystery also helps Jay learn about himself, but it’s done in a way that doesn’t feel forced or in bad taste. As he learns and connects to his heritage, so too does the reader. 

I really enjoyed “Patron Saints of Nothing”. I felt like it told a unique and needed story, and gave context and voice to realities that are easy to ignore when it comes to human rights issues around the world. I am going to keep my eye on Randy Ribay, because I feel like this is the start of a storied and rich writing career.

Rating 8: A powerful and eye opening story about identity, loss, and standing up for what’s right, “Patron Saints of Nothing” casts a spotlight on a less talked about human rights issue and the complexities that surround it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Patron Saints of Nothing” isn’t included on any Goodreads lists yet, but I think that it would fit in on “Best Asian-American Teen Fiction”.

Find “Patron Saints of Nothing” at your library using WorldCat!

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