It’s been quite a while since I reviewed any historical fiction and I was very excited for the opportunity to review this book. It’s a moving, high-stakes portrait of a girl’s refusal to give up her family or her dreams in the midst of Mexico’s civil war, available September 14.
The Barefoot Dreams of Petra Luna
by Alda P. Dobbs.
Sourcebooks Young Readers, 2021.
Review copy kindly sent by the author.
In 1913 Mexico, 12-year-old Petra has been forced to become the primary breadwinner for her family, taking care of her younger sister Amelia, baby brother Luisito, and her Abuelita. First her mother died and then her father was forced into joining the army of the Federales, a cause he definitely doesn’t support. They were poor to begin with, looked down on for their brown skin, leaving cutting firewood as the best thing Petra can do to survive.
When the Federales return, burning their whole village down, the little family flees north into the desert. At first, they have no destination and very little hope. Then, sheltering at a church, Petra is befriended by a Spanish-speaking American girl her own age, Adeline. Adeline teaches Petra to write her name and assures her that in America, everyone can go to school. And even though Abuelita tells Petra that learning to read or become a teacher is a “barefoot dream”, too grand for someone of her station in life, Petra is determined to lead her family to safety in America.
The journey there is not easy, though. They are traveling through a desert already picked clean of edibles by the other refugees, with no food, money, or even shoes. There is always the chance that the Federales will return any place they might find that would have anything helpful. And as horrible as things have become, it’s not easy to leave the country they love. Leaving would make it that much harder for their father ever to find them. And would Petra’s intelligence be better put to use trying to defeat the Federales?
This is a story set during a war, a civil war my history classes never covered. That means both that the close-up view of history is fascinating, and that there are a lot of tough things – carefully handled, but I’ll note for sensitive readers that this does include the death of an infant. (I am a pretty sensitive reader, but I’m learning that death during a war is less shocking for me than death in an otherwise peaceful story.) There were parts of the story that I thought for sure were inventions by the author – a dramatic escape during a storm, the scene at the border – that turned out to be absolutely real.
It isn’t a close following of the war like Rilla of Ingleside, but the focus on Petra and her family makes everything personal and relevant. I especially loved Petra’s relationship with her grandmother, showing Petra switching between respect for Abuelita’s ability to survive in the desert and rejection of her grandmother’s focus on the importance of Petra remaining feminine, subservient to men, and remembering her low rung on the social scale, as well as Petra’s sorrow that she hasn’t learned Nahuatl, Abuelita’s first language. I’m sure there are kids who’d be just as excited about all the military details. I’m looking forward to more stories from Ms. Dobbs, hopefully more about Petra and her family!