Featured Reviews, VOLUME 12

Rubén Degollado – Throw: A Novel [Feature Review]

The Possibility of
Forgiveness and Hope

A Feature Review of

Throw: A Novel
Rubén Degollado

Paperback: Slant/Wipf & Stock, 2019.
Buy Now:  [ Amazon ]  [ Kindle ]

Reviewed by Mary VanderGoot
How often do the last lines of a novel evoke the opening lines so deftly that, without needing to go back to the first page to check, the reader knows the author has kept his promise? This is how Throw begins:

If I’m going to tell you the story of how I lost two people who were closer than blood to me, I have to begin here in Dennett, Texas, during the summer between the sophomore and junior years of my life. This story begins as it ends, with me, Cirilo Izquierdo, waiting for what all of us spend our whole lives waiting for: to not be alone anymore.

Rubén Degollado’s young adult novel is written for anyone old enough to know the ache of loneliness. It captures the magnetism of attraction, draws on themes as old as story itself, and weaves this all into the fabric of a particular place. The reader is transported to the Rio Grande Valley, to that part of Texas which is as far south as one can go before crossing the river into Mexico. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that the story takes place in a fictional town in that part of Texas where Hispanic families do not think of the river as a border between two countries, because they are at home on both sides of the Rio Grande.

Place adds much to the color and texture of Throw, and so does language.  In a cast of characters that has some speaking both English and Spanish effortlessly, there are many instances in which they grasp whatever word expresses their meaning best. The author’s use of code switching is done with such poetic intuition that there is no need to guess what the words mean. Nevertheless, sentences woven together seamlessly with words drawn from two languages give a clear impression of who is and who is not an insider.

The story of Cirilo, known by his knickname Güero (the one with light skin and hair), echoes the tragic story of star-crossed lovers, like those well known from the drama of Romeo and Juliet.  In this story the conflict is not between noble houses, but rather the competition of young men for young women by whom they are enchanted and to whom they believe fate has bound them. And it is the story of friendship pacts, forged in search of security but also hazardous in a world of competing interests: gangs, thugs, and the turf wars that mark the barrios. This setting of tangled loyalties and dualities that cannot be reconciled creates a sense of fate accelerating to an inevitable conclusion.

Woven through this narrative is another story widely known among children raised in the southwest. It is the legend of La Llorano – the Weeping Woman.  She is a beautiful woman who drowns her two sons in order to take revenge against the husband who has deserted her. As punishment for her deed she is condemned to an unending search for the bodies of her children in the river. Like Medea in Greek mythology and the keening banshees of Irish folklore, these bitter women deliver revenge by inflicting suffering on the innocent. Children who are told the story of La Llorona are warned to stay clear of this ghostly apparition and not stray far from the safety of their parents, because La Llorona who goes about calling out to her children will seize other people’s children in place of her own.

Güero’s first love is a broken girl who has taken on the nickname La Llorona, and though he knows his attachment to her is dangerous, Güero cannot let her go. The way Degollado tells the story here is so down to earth and convincing the reader nearly forgets that it is a story type told in many other times and in many other places. Güero ends as he began:

So this is what it was to be abandoned, knowing the only thing in life that will never leave you is pain and sadness that goes down into your bones. Our whole lives we fought against this loneliness, waited and waited for it to pass….

In this version of the story there is a fresh twist: short of death, tragedy in youth is not the end, rather it is the beginning. Seasoned by experiences that put a stamp on his life, Cirilo (Güero) returns to the circle of his extended family. There he finds a place with his aunts and his uncles, and he joins in the play of his cousins. Visiting his aging grandparents, Güero realizes that the lives that are behind them are like the life that lies ahead of him. It is his to map out, and it is his to claim for himself and for his family.

There are some who say that young adult literature is for readers age fourteen to forty. That estimate may fall short in the case of this story, because it is readable at any age. It portrays the inevitability of being tested by life, and at the same time it reminds the reader of the possibility of forgiveness and hope. These are messages that never age, but how often does one find them in a book that you can’t set down, in a story that artfully combines the gritty with the redemptive?

I could imagine a family reading this story together – teenagers reading it with their parents or grandparents reading it with grandchildren. This book deserves a place on the shelves of public libraries, or school libraries, or church libraries. Teachers who have the option to choose reading for their high school courses would do well to consider it. We can all hope that this debut novel by Rubén Degollado has written between its lines another promise, his next novel.

Mary VanderGoot is a Professor of Psychology and a Therapist who also teaches in a college program in a prison. She is the author of After Freedom: How Boomers Pursued Freedom, Questioned Virtue, and Still Search for Meaning (Cascade Books, 2012).


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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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