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Return to Sender    by Julia Alvarez order for
Return to Sender
by Julia Alvarez
Order:  USA  Can
Knopf, 2009 (2009)
Hardcover, e-Book
* *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Julia Alvarez (author of Finding Miracles, Before We Were Free and A Gift of Gracias: The Legend of Altagracia) now brings fans Return To Sender. The story takes place in the Green Mountain State of Vermont, focusing on the tribulations and trials of farming and a family's land on the brink of foreclosure. Two voices alternate in telling a powerful story, unveiling the truth that 'friendship has no borders'.

Tyler Paquette is as patriotic as his family, but when he learns that his parents have hired illegal aliens to work on their Vermont farmland, the eleven-year old questions their intentions. Dad recently had a disabling tractor accident shortly after Grandpa's death; Mom's attention is torn between her husband's ailment, the needs of her children, and the running of the farm. Older brother Ben is hesitant about his upcoming plans for college, while sister Sara is occupied with extracurricular activities. With threats of losing their land, Tyler offers to quit school to help with farm chores.

The migrant family includes Papa, his three daughters (Mari, Luby, and Ofie) and two uncles, Tio Armando and Tio Felipe. Before moving to the New England farm, the migrants worked in North Carolina, travelling into the United States by bus from Las Margaritas, Mexico. The eldest, Mari, was born in Mexico, while Luby and Ofie were born in Carolina Del Norte. Months ago, Mama had to return to Mexico after receiving word that a relative was dying. The months have turned into a year, with no word from Mama.

Hoping letters will reach Mama when she returns to a North Carolina address, Mari describes the family's move to Vermont, the loneliness for Mama, and increasing fears of being found by la migra. Mama once told Mari: 'Whenever you feel sad or lonely or confused, just pick up a pen and write me a letter ... When you write down your thoughts to anyone, you do not feel so alone.' Mari also writes letters to the U.S. president (without giving her last name), and to her Abuelita in Mexico. Papa warns Mari that she cannot mail the letters for fear that the authorities will trace the addresses.

Tyler misses Gramps, sharing the loss with Grandma who understands best what he feels. He treasures the telescope Gramps gave him before he died. On the gift card Gramps wrote: 'Anytime you feel lost, look up.' And 'many times this summer and fall Tyler had done just that', hugging the treasure to his heart. As a friendship develops, Tyler shares his knowledge of the skies with Mari, teaching her the constellations: Orion, the hunter; The Seven Sisters; Draco, the dragon; Pegasus, the flying horse, and much more. Grandma Paquette dotes on the three girls, including them in holiday celebrations, while, in turn, learning the varied observances of Mexican holidays.

There are Paquette family debates as to whether Grandma should be living alone. Grandma threatens to run away, and with the help of her Mexican friends, she hides out to get even with her family. Meanwhile, rumors abide that Homeland Security is making arrests. Tio Felipe is taken in by the authorities, facing trial, jail, and deportation.

Julia Alvarez writes: 'Dear readers, queridos lectores, Although this is a made-up story, the situation it describes is true ... farmers from Mexico and Central America are forced to come north to work because they can no longer earn a living from farming. They make the dangerous border crossing with 'coyotes', who charge them a lot of money and often take advantage. To keep out these migrants, a wall is being built between Mexico and the United States ... We are treating these neighbor countries and migrant helpers as if they were our worst enemies.' The author also addresses the 2006 Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid - a dragnet known as Operation Return to Sender.

This is not a plot-driven story; Return To Sender focuses on social and moral life concerns. It is soothing, yet emotional, informative, yet a question–raiser. Alvarez's writings offer a compassionate narrative that unfolds as borders (emotional, mental, and physical) are crossed. The last two chapters – one Tyler's and another Mari's - are superbly written, showing the growing maturity of two friends across borders.

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