A young Mexican man takes a dangerous journey on top of a train to the US border.
Manuel lives a traditional life farming corn with his family in Mexico. His older brother, Tono, has left Mexico for America. He lives in Los Angeles and does menial work to scratch out a living. Being witness to a tragic event prompts young Manuel (he is twelve-years-old) to ride on top of a freight train to the US border. These freight trains are colloquially known as The Beast. It's an extremely dangerous way to get to the border as murderous gangs patrol the train tops. The travel is also dirty and uncomfortable, with access to water and food limited.
It takes Manuel several years to re-unite with his brother Tono in Los Angeles. By the time he arrives he is fifteen-years-old and his hair has gone white from the stress of travel. He finds life in America isolating and exploitative. In one memorable passage, Manuel finds a laboring job, but is treated abominably. This is the lot of undocumented Mexican migrants, as they have no legal protections.
As life in Los Angeles becomes lonelier, and his prospects wither, Manuel makes a surprising decision.
Tony Johnston and María Elena Fontanot de Rhoads have created a gritty yet heartfelt story of a young man out on his own, making a terrifying trip. The story has a nicely rhythmic prose, liberally peppered with Spanish words, giving it a unique feel. In theme, if not in style, the book is reminiscent of John Steinbeck classics such as The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, as it deals with indigent workers trying to survive in a harsh American labour market that is stacked against them. Realistic touches, such as the depiction of the notorious gangs, the kindness of strangers and the grim camaraderie of the beast riders, make for a refreshing authenticity.
Young readers here get a window onto a very different world, exposing them to a current political and moral dilemma of how to respond to the US border problem. An adventure story tempered with much sadness.
Beast Rider, by Tony Johnston and Maria Elena Fontanot de Rhoads. Published by Abrams. RRP: $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba